Road to the Kentucky Derby: trial downgrades are justified - and there may be more changes to come

Outwork (second right) beats Trojan Nation in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in April. The 2017 running will be a Grade 2. Photo: Chelsea Durand/

Nowhere is winter racing more compelling than in the U.S. The road to the Kentucky Derby is so absorbing because of the structure of the trials. Dividing the country into three, West to East, each area has well-spaced races leading up to ‘regional finals’ in the spring.

Two of these regional finals have different signposts this year, however. The Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct have been demoted to Grade 2, leaving the Santa Anita Derby (West), the Arkansas Derby (Central) and Florida Derby (East) as the top-level prep races for the Churchill Downs feature.

Is this a well-chosen move by the American Graded Stakes Committee? Is it justified by the standard of these races? Absolutely, yes.

As with everything we do regarding the TRC Global Rankings of races, horses, jockeys, owners, trainers and sires, we didn’t guess at the answer to this question. We didn’t set arbitrary rules or designed coefficients to produce the desired result. We used mathematics.

Snapshot of the past

The standard of a group or graded race should be computed by the expected performance rating of the next winner. This is important because this is what matters. Historical data – such as the ‘last five renewals’ concept widely used around the world to grade races – is merely a snapshot of the past. The information must be optimally combined to estimate the present value of a race.   

This is not best achieved by averaging the ratings of the last five winners, or any other ad hoc heuristic technique. Instead, a staple of prediction called regression enables us to weight the performance of every horse in every past renewal proportional to its predictive power.  

And this computation shows us the expected strength of all the key prep races for the Derby, which is shown in the table below. The most important column is ‘Expected_RPR’, which distils this information.

How the trials stack up on TRC Global Rankings

RaceGradeDistanceCourseMonthWinner_RPRFirst3_RPRExpected_RPROur Grade
Santa Anita Derby19Santa AnitaApril118.7112.2118.31
Arkansas Derby19Oaklawn ParkApril118.5110.8117.51
Florida Derby19Gulfstream ParkApril117.0112.1117.41
Rebel Stakes28.5Oaklawn ParkMarch116.7111.8116.62
San Felipe Stakes28.5Santa AnitaMarch116.8110.6116.52
Wood Memorial Stakes29AqueductApril114.2111.4115.32
Blue Grass Stakes29KeenelandApril114.5110.0114.82
Louisiana Derby29Fair GroundsMarch113.8110.4114.82
Fountain Of Youth28.5Gulfstream ParkFebruary114.2109.2114.42
Robert B Lewis38.5Santa AnitaFebruary114.0108.7113.92*
Holy Bull Stakes28.5Gulfstream ParkJanuary114.5106.8113.62
Sunland Derby39Sunland ParkMarch114.2104.8112.62*
Tampa Bay Derby28.5Tampa Bay DownsMarch112.8106.5112.52
Los Alamitos Futurity18.5Los AlamitosDecember111.0107.5111.62*
Southwest Stakes38.5Oaklawn ParkFebruary111.9104.6111.23
Gotham Stakes38.5AqueductMarch111.3105.0110.93
Illinois Derby39HawthorneApril110.2105.9110.63
Risen Star Stakes28.5Fair GroundsFebruary108.7106.9110.53*
San Vicente Stakes27Santa AnitaFebruary108.8104.9109.33*
Withers Stakes38.5AqueductFebruary107.6102.9108.13
Jerome Stakes38.3AqueductJanuary108.8101.1108.03
Lexington Stakes38.5KeenelandApril108.0101.8107.83
Swale Stakes27Gulfstream ParkJanuary107.8101.6107.63*
Sham Stakes38Santa AnitaFebruary107.7102.5107.43
Lecomte Stakes38.3Fair GroundsJanuary108.3100.7107.23
Hutcheson Stakes37Gulfstream ParkJanuary108.399.4106.63
Bay Shore Stakes37AqueductApril104.5101.4105.63
Sam F Davis Stakes38.5Tampa Bay DownsFebruary102.8100.1104.33


The Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby and Florida Derby dominate. They should be Grade 1s. They concentrate talent and require a smart performance to win.

The Wood Memorial and the Blue Grass have fallen behind and justify reversion to their former Grade 2 status.

In fact, the table shows that it isn’t just the ‘regional finals’ at Santa Anita, Oaklawn Park and Gulfstream that are the strongest preps, but their own Grade 2 prep races, the Rebel Stakes, San Felipe Stakes and Fountain Of Youth Stakes. It all stacks up and points to horsemen pointing their best runners to these racing circuits, instead of New York. The other races at Aqueduct in the table apart from the Wood just don’t fare that well and deserve their lower Grade 3 status. Now, their focus, the Wood itself, has been brought into line just one step higher as a Grade 2.

Los Alamitos Futurity’s status at risk

The other race worthy of mention is the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity, which used to be run at Hollywood Park before its inter-California transfer from Inglewood. The 2016 renewal takes place this Saturday and needs to give the race a boost in quality, or else it won’t be holding Grade 1 status for long.

Other changes between the existing gradings and those we suggest from the ratings are indicated in bold with an asterisk. Arguably, using the figures as we have done provides a more cogent structure.

Around the world, many more races need downgrading than upgrading. Group or Grade 1 status should be reserved for races that provide a championship-like event for the relevant division, circuit and time of year, rather than just demarking an important race.

The best performances tend to arise when all horses within a subculture are trained to peak for a small number of events.

View Comments
blog comments powered by Disqus

More Racing Articles

By the same author