Identifying Kentucky Derby Contenders

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By Dean Arnold

Even though it’s only late February, a question you should be asking yourself is, which horses will actually make it to the 2020 Kentucky Derby (G1) starting gate?

Yes, a number of Kentucky Derby (G1) prep races have already been run, but every Derby starter will make at least one more start before the first Saturday in May. This Saturday’s Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park offers 50 Derby qualifying points to the winner (50-20-10-5). What was once the primary prep race for the Florida Derby (G1) is now a race that guarantees the winner enough points for a spot in the Kentucky Derby (G1) starting gate, meaning it’s possible that the top two finishers from this race could train up to the first Saturday in May.

This year, there have been no standout performances, no repeat winners and no dominant entrant in any region of the country. No colt has been able to win back to back three-year-old stakes, and many of the stakes winners this year were complete unknowns prior to their stakes win. This makes the task of identifying both likely starters and true contenders particularly challenging.

However, using the following criteria, the search for true Kentucky Derby (G1) contenders can be a lot simpler.

Bear in mind that if any Kentucky Derby (G1) starter runs worse than fourth in his final prep, he may still qualify on points, but it is hard to consider a horse coming in to the Kentucky Derby (G1) off a well-beaten performance anything more than an outsider. In fact, every Kentucky Derby (G1) winner since at least 1970 ran fourth or better in his or her final Derby prep (even 2019 eventual 65/1 winner Country House finished third in the Arkansas Derby (G1)).

But history has proven that the Santa Anita Derby (G1), the Arkansas Derby (G1) and the Florida Derby (G1) are the paths most recent Kentucky Derby (G1) winners have followed to victory. Consider the top two finishers of these three major preps as the six ‘main’ contenders.  

If a horse wins one of the other major preps in a dominant manner AND earned a big speed figure, they are also part of the list. Horses that win a prep but fail to earn a Beyer Speed Figure (BSF) of 100 or more are sub-par by Kentucky Derby (G1) standards. For example, if you see a horse win the Fountain of Youth (G2) with a 90ish BSF, you know he will need to further develop to be a serious Kentucky Derby (G12) threat. If he wins his final prep with a similar figure, he is a toss-out. But if he returns and runs a 100 (or greater), he is a contender to be sure.

Requirements to identify Kentucky Derby contenders:

  • The top two finishers from the ‘Big Three’ prep races (SA Derby, ARK Derby & FL Derby) are the horses most likely to win the Kentucky Derby.
  • History shows that any horse that does not finish in the superfecta in his final prep race is a horse you can eliminate from consideration.
  • Ignore all pre-race hype as a case will be made for each contender.
  • Accept only dominant winners with 100+ Beyer Speed Figures from the other prep races.

Be sure to check out Dean Arnold's handicapping book, A Bettor Way, on sale now through Amazon.

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