Many of the best horses in the East Coast on the trail to the Kentucky Derby no longer use the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland or the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct as their final prep before the run for the roses on the first Saturday in May.
That fact was reflected when the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association's American Graded Stakes Committee announced last week that both the Blue Grass and the Wood Memorial – two races with a distinguished history and a long roster of Hall of Fame winners – would be relegated from Grade 1 to Grade 2 contests, beginning in 2017. The committee's decision is not subjective; it's based on a set of statistical criteria that evaluates the entire field for the most recent five runnings of each race..
The trend of diminishing quality for the two races was set in motion in 2005 when Gulfstream Park officials moved the date of the Grade 1 Florida Derby from mid-March to early April. The Florida Derby has been one of five Grade 1 prep races for the Kentucky Derby, along with the Blue Grass, Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby and Arkansas Derby.
When the Florida Derby was run earlier, trainers would give their horses one more prep after that race before heading to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby. In 2004, Michael Dickinson sent Tapit to New York after a disappointing sixth-place finish behind Friends Lake in the Florida Derby. He won the Wood Memorial impressively in what would be his final career victory before starting an enormously successful career at stud.
The previous year, Florida Derby winner Empire Maker went to Aqueduct to win the Wood over Funny Cide, who would turn the tables by winning the Kentucky Derby a few weeks later.
The 2002 Florida Derby winner, Harlan's Holiday, prepped for the Kentucky Derby in the Blue Grass Stakes. The 2001 Florida Derby winner, Monarchos, went to the Wood. Hal's Hope, winner of the 2000 Florida Derby, went to the Blue Grass. And so on and so on.
No horse since Funny Cide has competed in the Wood and then gone on to win the Kentucky Derby. Street Sense, who finished second in the 2007 Blue Grass before winning that year's Kentucky Derby, is the last Derby winner to have his final prep in Keeneland's premier race for 3-year-olds.
When I covered my first Kentucky Derby in 1988, Brian's Time won the Florida Derby, then raced at Turfway Park in the Jim Beam Stakes and then went to New York for the Wood. The son of Roberto had four prep races before the Kentucky Derby and raced 12 times overall that year.
Good horses don't race that often any more. Trainers with an eye on the Kentucky Derby are looking to give their horses two or three preps. It's just the way it is.
One horseman looking at two probable preps in 2017 for what he hopes will be a Kentucky Derby contender is Tony Dutrow, trainer of Mo Town. The Uncle Mo colt won the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct on Nov. 26 by 2 ½ lengths and looked very good doing it.
Mo Town has been sent to Florida for the winter, but Dutrow commented after the Remsen that he was thinking of the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on March 4 for Mo Town's 3-year-old debut. The race awards 50 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the winner. The Wood (with 100 points to the winner) would be a logical second step, but Dutrow said the downgrade might force him to change plans.
Partners in Coolmore Stud bought a significant interest in Mo Town in October after the colt's seven-length maiden victory at Belmont Park Sept. 24. Mo Town had raced for Team D, a partnership organized by Dutrow, after the trainer bought him for $200,000 at the 2015 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.
The amount Coolmore's partners paid wasn't disclosed, but considering how hot their stallion Uncle Mo has become in just two years, it's fair to assume it was a considerable amount. Winning a Grade 1 race in New York would be an important accomplishment to help justify that purchase, but the first Grade 1 there for 3-year-olds now won't be until the Belmont Stakes.
Dutrow thinks the decision to downgrade the Wood Memorial was unfair to the New York Racing Association and to the owners and trainers who support what many agree is the premier year-round circuit in the sport.
A good horse like Mo Town may have to go elsewhere for a chance at that Grade 1 win.
“We must look at all options, now that the Wood has been downgraded,” Dutrow said. “We are disappointed.”
The statistics may say races like the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes are no longer among the most important events for 3-year-olds (as opposed to the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby, run on turf at Del Mar in December), but common sense would say otherwise. And common sense is something that's been missing from the American Graded Stakes Committee for a long time.
New to the Paulick Report? Click here to sign up for our daily email newsletter to keep up on this and other stories happening in the Thoroughbred industry.
Copyright © 2020 Paulick Report.