As we start a New Year, horse racing fans are likely to turn their attention toward two things – one relatively new, the other more than a hundred years old.
The relatively new event actually will be playing out before the first month of 2018 runs its course: That’s the ultra-rich, Pegasus World Cup, to be run at Gulfstream Park, Saturday, Jan. 27, for 4-year-olds and up at 1-1/8 miles. While this race was offered for the first time last year, this year’s edition will be offering a $16 million purse, the largest in racing history!
The other main focus will be the annual race and chase toward the Kentucky Derby – the world famous race that has been in existence since Churchill Downs set it up in 1875. While the Derby was run at 1-1/2 miles for its first 20 seasons, it has been run at its current classic 1-1/4 mile distance ever since. Moreover, only 3-year-old racehorses – those who were listed as 2-year-olds through Dec, 31, yet automatically became 3-year-olds on New Year’s Day – are eligible for the Derby. (Although racehorses are born at different times of the year, the annual, automatic age change has been adopted for several centuries strictly for convenience.)
Beyond those rudimentary facts, this year’s Derby chase was scheduled to begin promptly on Jan. 1; but, the brutally cold and windy weather in the east forced cancellations for a couple Derby prep stakes. Still, over the next four months leading to Derby Day – on the traditional First Saturday in May – there will be more than 75 stakes for promising 3-year-olds. Among the top stakes during that four month preliminary schedule there will be several worth $500,000 to more than $1 million.
Whether any of the horses who run well in those races will be worth backing on Derby Day is a subject we will discuss in depth down the road. In the meantime, here are the five most influential prep races I pay close attention to every year.
The Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds; the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park; the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct; the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, and the Santa Anita Derby in Southern California, where so many top notch 3-year-olds annually train.
Not only will you find that these rich stakes for emerging 3-year-olds can help identify legit Derby threats, they sometimes provide excellent wagers. Given that, I strongly encourage readers to look up the actual dates when these races will be run this year.
Take a shot or two when and if you see a realistic contender at fair odds. Of equal importance, whenever I catalog the better performances during the prep race season, it not only helps my eventual Derby analysis but the extra work tends to lead to many good plays through the rest of the year
As mentioned earlier, we also have that ultra rich Pegasus World Cup on the visible horizon. Gun Runner, the probable 2017 Horse of the Year and winner of the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar in November, certainly has been training strongly at the Fair Grounds Racetrack in his attempt to earn about $10 million of Gulfstream Park’s $16 million purse.
For instance, on Sunday trainer Steve Asmussen sent Gun Runner out for a 6-furlong drill in a snappy 1:10.60 while in company with a nice horse named Gettysburg. Under minimal pressure from exercise jockey Angel Garcia, Gun Runner went a leisurely 24.40 for the first quarter mile; 47.40 for the half and 5-furlongs in 58.20.
This gave Gun Runner a solid final furlong in 12.40. The son of Candy Ride then finished his drill, galloping out 7-furlongs in 1:24.40. While Asmussen has scheduled workouts for the next two Sundays before shipping to Gulfstream, this top quality horse has acted as if he will be a deserving favorite in the Pegasus. Yet, there are several other top notch horses gearing up to challenge him.
Seeking The Soul, another Pegasus prospect, who won the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs last fall, also worked at the Fair Grounds on Sunday, getting an easy half in 48.00, fourth fastest of the 91 horses who worked that distance. Trainer Dallas Stewart strongly believes his colt has considerable room for improvement.
Of course, the Bob Baffert trained duo of Collected and West Coast, who were second and third to Gun Runner in the BCup Classic, also are revving up for their trips to Gulfstream, as is the useful War Story, along with the vastly improved Sharp Azteca and at least a half-dozen other proven stakes winners.
Bottom line: The fact that the true contenders for the Pegasus and the Derby will only become clearer via two opposite training techniques, is one of the most intriguing features of this brand new year. On one hand, the horses trying to advance toward the Derby will do so via a series of increasingly demanding prep races, while the horses taking dead aim at the Pegasus will do so strictly through workouts.