Grading the Kentucky Derby Preps

Several years ago, I came up with a way to identify “key races” before they’d been run.

The key race concept was introduced by Steve Davidowitz in his master work “Betting Thoroughbreds” and it referred to an event that produced an inordinate number of next-out winners. Unfortunately, because they are determined by future performances, key races typically don’t have much value as predictive tools. After all, if four of six horses come out of the same race and win, but one bets the other two, it’s still arguably a key race… yet it does nothing to help one’s pocketbook.

Hence, my idea was to look at the form of horses coming into a particular contest to determine whether or not it was stronger or weaker than the average race at that class. I won’t detail the methodology here — the nuts and bolts are not the focus of this article — but, over the years, I’ve found it to be very effective.

Derby Winner Prep GradesHowever, I like my Key Race Method for another reason — mainly, its uncanny ability to gauge Kentucky Derby preps.

By adjusting the initial Method rating for class, I have come up with a technique that assigns each Derby prep a grade (A-F). And here’s the kicker: The last horse to win the roses after making its final start in a race with an “F” grade was Strike the Gold in 1994.

It gets better.

For those who like to judge Kentucky Derby contenders based on the preps they ran in (bashing California races is a popular pastime for some), the Key Race Method provides a more nuanced assessment. For example, over the past 10 years, the most fruitful Derby preps have been the Florida Derby (three Kentucky Derby winners), the Arkansas Derby (two winners) and the Santa Anita Derby (two winners).

Now, let’s take a look at the grades for those preps over the past decade:


Not only does the Florida Derby have the highest overall grade point average (sorry if that term brings back painful memories), but notice the years that it wasn’t considered a premier prep. In both 2009 and 2012, the Sunshine State’s richest race for sophomores received a “C” grade.

Look at how the horses coming out of those editions fared:

Florida Derby Performers

Not a single one hit the board in Louisville — and both Union Rags and Dunkirk were heavily-backed at the windows on the first Saturday in May.

Meanwhile, the six “A”-rated editions of the Florida Derby produced Kentucky Derby winners Orb (2013), Big Brown (2008) and Barbaro (2006), along with the 2010 runner-up Ice Box.

Last year, two final Kentucky Derby preps got an “F” — the Blue Grass Stakes and the Wood Memorial (races that, traditionally, have put a lot of horses in the Churchill Downs winner’s circle).

The top four finishers in the Blue Grass were all off the board in Louisville, as were the top two finishers in the Wood (although the Wood winner, Frosted, did round out the Derby superfecta).

Obviously, there’s still a lot of time before the final preps for this year’s Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports are run, but here’s the way things look like so far:

Derby Prep Grades