With changing approaches in preparing horses for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) and the Triple Crown races, this year’s once crowded schedule three weeks before the Derby now offers only two races.
Rounding out this year’s edition of the Road to the Kentucky Derby points races are the Arkansas Derby (G1) at Oaklawn Park, a major prep with a million-dollar purse; and the Stonestreet Lexington Stakes (G3) at Keeneland, a chance to pick up a few points for horses close to making the Derby field.
One doesn’t need to be especially long in the tooth to recall that the three weeks ahead of the Derby used to be a preferred final stop ahead of the Derby. Four of the first five Kentucky Derby winners this century entered the race off a three-week rest.
The 2004 Derby winner, Smarty Jones, famously prepped at Oaklawn and his Kentucky Derby win provided the final hurdle in earning a $5 million bonus following his sweep of the major preps in Arkansas.
Smarty Jones’ success followed three other Derby winners to take the 1 1/4-mile classic off three weeks rest: each off starts in Aqueduct’s biggest Derby prep as Funny Cide finished second to Empire Maker in the 2003 Wood Memorial Stakes (G1); Monarchos earned runner-up honors to Congaree in the 2001 Wood (G2); and Fusaichi Pegasus rolled to victory in the 2000 Wood (G2).
In fact, for the five Derby editions contested from 2000-04, 11 of the 15 top-three placings in the classic were represented by horses who started off three weeks rest. Beyond the four winners, the other placed horses prepped in the Arkansas Derby or Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G1). It was a time where the schedule met the demand.
Hozier training April 8 at Oaklawn Park
That schedule has since changed to reflect evolving demand—resulting in the Blue Grass and Wood positioned with earlier April dates—but the three-week period between prep and Derby continues to enjoy plenty of success, accounting for Derby wins by eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015 and Country House in 2019. It’s telling that six-time Derby winner Bob Baffert, who trained American Pharoah, continues to support the Arkansas Derby. He’ll send out even-money morning-line favorite Concert Tour and 3-1 second-choice Hozier Saturday.
That said, the Arkansas Derby did come up light this year with just six horses entered. Whether that’s a decreasing demand for a final major prep three weeks out or a concession to the talents of undefeated, two-time grade 2 winner Concert Tour figures to be examined by Oaklawn officials. In terms of support, the Lexington fared better, with 10 entered but many of those connections may not be seriously considering the Kentucky Derby.
The Arkansas Derby offers 100 points to the winner, then 40, 20, 10 to the next three finishers. The Lexington offers a smaller scale of points (20-8-4-2) to its top four finishers. A victory by Proxy or Hockey Dad in the 1 1/16-mile Lexington would likely give them enough points to start in the Derby if their connections wish to run their horses there.