Do January Derby Preps Matter?

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")

In the quiet month of January—the only month in American horse racing that does not feature at least one grade I race!—it’s natural to pay special attention to the early Kentucky Derby prep races. After all, there’s no better time to start compiling lists of up-and-coming three-year-olds that could prove influential on the first Saturday in May, and let’s face it—there are bragging rights at stake for those that can find the Derby winner four months in advance! As a result, races such as the Jerome Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct, the Sham Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita, and the LeComte Stakes (gr. III) at Fair Grounds tend to draw much more interest than typical grade III races, often overshadowing more highly-rated races being held on the same day.

But although it’s easy to place a great deal of emphasis and attention on these early Derby prep races, doing so leads to an interesting question: How much of an impact do these early Derby preps actually have on the Derby itself? Or, to put it more bluntly—do these early Derby preps really matter?

In an effort to answer this question, I decided to undertake a small study. To begin, I decided to define "early" as the month of January so we have a clear-cut time period to consider. I then examined the records of the last twenty Kentucky Derby winners to determine A; how many ran in stakes races during the month of January, and B; how many ran in any race during the month of January. The results can be viewed in the table below:

Horse Ran in January? Race(s) run in January
California Chrome Yes California Cup Derby
Orb Yes Allowance optional claiming
I’ll Have Another No
Animal Kingdom No
Super Saver No
Mine That Bird No
Big Brown No
Street Sense No
Barbaro Yes Tropical Park Derby (gr. III)
Giacomo No
Smarty Jones Yes Count Fleet Stakes
Funny Cide Yes Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III)
War Emblem Yes LeComte Stakes
Monarchos Yes Maiden special weight
Fusaichi Pegasus Yes Maiden special weight
Charismatic Yes Allowance & Santa Catalina Stakes (gr. II)
Real Quiet Yes Golden Gate Derby
Silver Charm No
Grindstone No
Thunder Gulch No

As you can see, of the last twenty Derby winners, exactly half ran in races during the month of January and half did not. Of the ten that ran during January, seven started in stakes races, but only three started in graded stakes races—the kind of races that can be considered early Derby preps in the truest sense.

But although these statistics are interesting, the main point to consider is that no Derby winner since Barbaro in 2006—a span of eight years—has run in a graded stakes race during the month of January. Furthermore, six consecutive Derby winners from 2007 through 2012 did not run at all during the month of January.

So taking the last twenty years at face value, it appears there is a 50-50 chance that you will be able to find the 2015 Derby winner in the entries this month. But looking specifically at the trends of the last eight years, if you’re going to try and uncover the Derby winner in January, your chances will be better if you search the work tabs rather than the post parades of graded stakes races.

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