By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
When it comes to preparing
for the Kentucky Derby (G1), there's no such thing as a one-size fits all
approach. At this point, there are no fewer than nine distinct paths horses can
follow to qualify for the Derby.
But not every path is
created equal—some paths to the Derby are more productive than others. Looking
ahead to the 2022 Kentucky Derby, let's review the nine main roads to the roses,
then use historical data to rate (on a one-to-five scale) their likelihood of
producing the Derby champ.
The Arkansas route to the
Kentucky Derby is comprised of four rich qualifiers at Oaklawn Park, all taking
place during the year of the Derby. The series culminates with the Arkansas
Derby (G1), which has churned out Kentucky Derby heroes Smarty Jones (2004),
Super Saver (2010), American Pharoah (2015), and Country House (2019) since the
turn of the century.
Year after year, Arkansas is
a proving ground for some of the best sophomores in training, even if they
don't snatch victory in the Derby. Champions and/or classic winners Creator,
Lookin At Lucky, Curlin, Lawyer Ron, Afleet Alex have all competed in Oaklawn's
Derby preps since 2005, stamping Oaklawn's series as one of the most productive
on the Derby trail.
Over the last decade, no
state has produced more Kentucky Derby winners than California, which hosts
between seven and eight preps at Santa Anita, Los Alamitos, Golden Gate Fields,
and (occasionally) Del Mar. During the 10-year span from 2012 and 2021, Derby
champs I'll Have Another (2012), California Chrome (2014), American Pharoah (2015), Nyquist (2016),
Justify (2018), Authentic (2020), and Medina Spirit (2021, status under dispute) all contested at
least one prep race in California. More specifically, they all started at Santa Anita, and all but American Pharoah and Nyquist contested the Santa Anita
Quality typically runs deep
in California, and it's not uncommon to see California's sophomores ship across
the country to win qualifiers in other states. The takeaway? California is the
first place to look when searching for Kentucky Derby contenders.
Derby contenders arriving by
way of Dubai are far from uncommon; since 2000, 15 horses have used the UAE
Derby (G2) as a springboard to Churchill Downs. But none of the 15 managed to
crack the Kentucky Derby superfecta, even though the group included such
talented runners as two-time Dubai World Cup (G1) winner Thunder Snow and
Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) champ Mendelssohn.
So far, there hasn't been a
lot of interest from European horsemen in using the European Road to the
Kentucky Derby as a springboard to Churchill Downs. Since the seven qualifying
races take place on turf and synthetic rather than dirt, the European Road to
the Kentucky Derby is more likely to produce contenders for the European
classics than the Triple Crown.
Since the turn of the
century, only Florida has been able to compete against California as a frequent
source of Kentucky Derby winners. The Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park has
produced Kentucky Derby winners Monarchos (2001), Barbaro (2006), Big Brown
(2008), Orb (2013), Nyquist (2016), and Always Dreaming (2017), while the Tampa
Bay Derby (G2) at Tampa Bay Downs has contributed Street Sense (2007) and Super
All told, Florida's five
preps at Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs have produced eight Derby winners
since 2000, an impressive string of success. However, there's a chance the
continued rise of Arkansas and Louisiana will weaken Florida's impact during
the 2020s—we're already seeing a shift with the formidable stable of Eclipse
Award-winning trainer Brad Cox favoring Arkansas and Louisiana over Florida.
Spanning seven to eight races
at three different tracks from September through April, Kentucky's path to the
Derby covers a lot of territory. In fact, it's hard to pin down the definition
of a "Kentucky-based Derby contender," because many horses combine a stop or
two in Kentucky with prep runs in other states. For example, the
Florida-to-Kentucky route is a common path for Derby contenders to employ
during the winter and spring.
But in any case, Kentucky
has surprisingly struggled to toss up Derby winners in recent years. The last
Run for the Roses champ to start in one of Kentucky's winter or spring preps
was Animal Kingdom (2011), who won the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) back when it was a
Grade 2 known as the Spiral Stakes. Furthermore, Keeneland's historic Blue
Grass S. (G2) has produced only one Derby champion (Street Sense, 2007) in the
last 25 years.
There are a couple of ways
to view Louisiana's path to the Kentucky Derby, which is expanding from three
to four qualifiers (all at Fair Grounds) this season. You could take a
skeptical view and point out how the series culminates with the Louisiana Derby
(G2), and only two horses—Black Gold in 1924 and Grindstone in 1996—have ever
completed the Louisiana Derby/Kentucky Derby double.
On the other hand, you could
point out how War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (2003), and Country House (2019)
have all used the Fair Grounds qualifiers as springboards to Derby glory in the
last 20 years. Furthermore, the Louisiana Derby has produced seven Kentucky
Derby trifecta finishers since 2011, so it's safe to say the series is getting
stronger. With high-profile trainers Steve Asmussen and Brad Cox focusing on
Fair Grounds each winter, there's a chance we'll see Fair Grounds produce
multiple Kentucky Derby winners during the 2020s.
New York has long been the
epicenter of elite racing in the United States, so you might be surprised to know
the five Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races held annually at Aqueduct
haven't been especially productive in recent years.
To put it simply, the last
Kentucky Derby winner to start in one of the New York qualifiers was Funny Cide
(2003), runner-up in the Wood Memorial (G2). Meanwhile, the Remsen S. (G2)
hasn't produced a Derby champ since Thunder Gulch in 1995, and the only Gotham
S. (G3) starter to win the Derby was Secretariat back in 1973.
Historically, the Wood
Memorial was a key steppingstone toward the Derby, producing 20 winners between
1930 and 2003. But many of those winners came when the Florida-to-New York
route to the Derby was popular; nowadays, horses are more likely to compete
exclusively in Florida or target the Blue Grass S. (G2) in Kentucky instead,
leaving the Wood Memorial as a less productive qualifier.
Although the Japan Road to
the Kentucky Derby has yet to produce a Derby winner, the four qualifying races
take place on dirt, and Master Fencer used the series as a springboard to a
solid sixth-place finish in the 2019 Kentucky Derby.
Riding the momentum of
Japan's first two Breeders' Cup wins last month, I wouldn't be surprised to see
a top-tier Japanese dirt star take aim at the 2022 Kentucky Derby, opening the
door for an upset victory. The quality of racing in Japan is high, and U.S.
dirt bloodlines are common. The only concern is the fact international
challengers across the board haven't enjoyed the best luck in the Kentucky
Derby; the last Derby winner based outside of North America was Canonero II in
Now it's your turn! Which
region do you believe is most likely to produce the 2022 Kentucky Derby winner?
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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite.