There is nothing quite like horse racing’s Triple Crown – the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), Preakness Stakes (gr. I), and Belmont Stakes (gr. I). Only eleven horses have won the series. The three grueling contests are spaced out over only five weeks. Many horses that run in one or more of the races require several months off to recover.
The problem isn’t the Triple Crown, it’s the additional months of necessary preparation that lead up to it. Trainers have to walk a fine line between having too many prep races that could leave a horse lethargic, or too few prep races that cause a horse to not be adequately fit. Triple Crown season starts on January 1st and goes until the first week of June, an extremely long time for any horse to stay at the top of its game, especially a three-year-old. Each trainer faces the same puzzle: how many races should the horse prepare in?
Measuring the Importance of the Preps
Major racetracks around the country generally host one chief Kentucky Derby prep race, held in March or April, and then offer a series of stepping-stone prep races leading up to that one important event. For example, Santa Anita runs the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) in early April and offers five other prep races from January through March (for example, the San Rafael (gr. III) in mid January, then the Sham Stakes (gr. III) in late February). In comparison, Aqueduct’s Wood Memorial (gr. I) is preceded by prep races in January, February, and March.
A position in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby, which, with a 20-horse limit, is almost always oversubscribed, is determined by the amount of graded stakes earnings won. Earnings from any race (such as a maiden or listed stakes) that isn’t graded don’t count towards the horse’s total for the Derby. To keep a horse from being excluded, the horse must win or run second in one of the richer prep races. The January and February preps tend to have lower purses and be grade III races, followed by slightly larger grade II purses in March, leading to the rich Grade I races in April.
Instead of easing the horse into more difficult competition, a trainer or owner with Triple Crown dreams will rush the horse into a graded stakes race, which can either pay off or backfire.
The first hiccup that a trainer encounters is when a horse impressively breaks its maiden in January or even early February. If the horse were any other age, the trainer would likely attempt to get an allowance for the horse, but if the horse is a candidate for the Triple Crown, the trainer might not want to waste time in the all important race for graded stakes earnings. Instead of easing the horse into more difficult competition, a trainer or owner with Triple Crown dreams will rush the horse into a graded stakes race, which can either pay off or backfire.
Trends Are Changing
One major trend right now is a decrease in the number of Derby preps desired by trainers. Back in the “old days,” horses ran more often. The belief was that horses had to be battle-tested multiple times before attempting the Triple Crown. These days, it is becoming more common to enter a horse in the race after only two prep races. Last year, Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby after two prep races and only three lifetime starts. The year before that, Street Sense also won after completing only two prep races. Big Brown went on to win the Preakness impressively and Street Sense missed by a nose.
Before those two came along, it had been over twenty years since a horse won the Derby with two preps. In the last decade alone, Derby winners Barbaro, Giacomo, Funny Cide, and Fusaichi Pegasus each won the Derby after running three times as a sophomore. Smarty Jones, War Emblem, and Monarchos all ran four times. Charismatic, the 1999 victor, raced seven times in the few months before attempting the Triple Crown. Based on these results, handicappers should be wary of horses with so few starts under their belts unless those prep races really challenged a horse.
It’s the Kind of Prep That Really Matters
Even though both Street Sense and Big Brown each ran only two prep races before the Triple Crown, those races were challenging enough to make them competitive on Derby Day.
Even though both Street Sense and Big Brown each ran only two prep races before the Triple Crown, those races were challenging enough to make them competitive on Derby Day. Street Sense started the year with a desperate nose victory in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) and then finished second in a multiple horse photo in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) in April. Fighting to the wire twice primed Street Sense for the Derby. Another prep race could have been too much. On the other hand, Big Brown ran his competitors to the ground, exploding to electrifying victories in both Derby prep races. Big Brown ran faster than any other horse in his crop and, like Street Sense, another prep race could have caused the colt to become exhausted before the Derby.
The amount of training a horse will need depends on the horse. For example, in 2006, Brother Derek waltzed through three prep races concluding in a runaway Santa Anita Derby victory, but he came up short in Kentucky. “It depends on the horse,” trainer Eoin Harty explained. “As a trainer, I would rather the horse not be too tested and do too much coming up to the big race, but you don’t want to find out on race day that your horse isn’t up to the top competition. For example, (1997 winner) Silver Charm had a very tough prep in the Santa Anita Derby but he was a horse who needed that kind of race because he was lazy. Last year, Colonel John had a lighter schedule and if he’d had to run a hard race before the Derby he might have had a better showing.” Colonel John finished sixth in the Derby.
Trainer Ron Ellis, who finished 4th in the Derby in 2005 with Don’t Get Mad, examined what a trainer looks for in more detail. “Deciding where to prep depends on if the horse has ever had a tough race or run against tough competition. If they know how to run hard and bear down, then you’d rather take an easy race leading up to the big ones. If they’ve never been tested or tried then you need to find one of those to enter. A lot of young horses haven’t been tried, but once they get hooked and show that they have heart, they will never again be shocked that another horse is running alongside them. That’s when you want the easy prep.”
This year, the West Coast is the proud home of The Pamplemousse, a sensational three-year-old who recently won the Sham Stakes (gr. III) and will now proceed to the Santa Anita Derby. Although The Pamplemousse hasn’t had a difficult race yet this year, his trainer, Julio Canani, isn’t hoping to find one in April.
"I don’t want him to be challenged," Canani said. "He doesn't need to be tested because he tests himself. When I want him to work a slow five furlongs in 1:01 he works in :58. I try not to ask him to do too much." - The Pamplemousse's trainer, Julio Canani
“I don’t want him to be challenged,” Canani said. “He doesn’t need to be tested because he tests himself. When I want him to work a slow five furlongs in 1:01 he works in :58. I try not to ask him to do too much.”
When it comes time to evaluate the candidates for the Kentucky Derby and other Triple Crown events this year, remember that a battle-tested horse with experience is more likely to emerge victorious than a lightly campaigned horse.
Emily Shields s a regular contributor to Case the Race. She has written for California Thoroughbred, Churchill Downs media, and international racing magazines.