Chitu, above winning the Sunland Derby, will contest the Derby Trial Stakes on Saturday at Churchill Downs and could go on to race in the Kentucky Derby a week later. (Coady Photography)
The move last year to a points-based system for qualifying for the Kentucky Derby has made for an interesting field in 2014. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the week-to-week suspense around who among the top 20 will actually run and who will drop out and make way for a horse on the bubble.
This week Bob Baffert gave a statement that probably left every bubble horse’s trainer frustrated. He said that one of his Kentucky Derby qualifiers, Chitu, will start in Saturday’s Grade 3 Derby Trial Stakes at Churchill Downs. Chitu currently ranks 12th in Derby-qualifying points and is guaranteed a spot in the race on May 3. At first, this news seemed encouraging for the horses currently tied for the 21st spot. But Baffert wouldn’t give them the pleasure. He said that he isn’t ruling out that Chitu could still come back and run in the Kentucky Derby a week later.
For recent fans of the sport, this sounds absurd. A horse can’t run in two stakes races one week apart! But there is a reason this race is named the Derby Trial. Historically, that is precisely what it was for.
First run at Churchill Downs in 1924, the Derby Trial is a one-mile race on dirt. Traditionally, the race was considered a final prep for horses entering the Kentucky Derby. And the race wasn’t always a week before the Derby, either. Up until 1982, it was held the Tuesday before!
Despite the quick turnaround time, five horses won both the Derby Trial and the Kentucky Derby a few days later. Black Gold (1924, the inaugural year), Citation (1948, who went on to win the Triple Crown), Hill Gail (1952, who was injured in his Derby win and did not compete for the Triple Crown), Dark Star (1953, who broke the Derby Trial record then won the Kentucky Derby as a 25-to-1 longshot), and Tim Tam (1958, who went on to capture the Derby and Preakness before a dramatic second-place finish in the Belmont after injuring himself in the stretch).
CITATION COMPLETED THE DERBY TRIAL-KENTUCKY DERBY DOUBLE
Photo by Horsephotos.com
The Triple Crown winner Whirlaway ran in the Derby Trial in 1941 on his way to capturing the Kentucky Derby. He finished second in the Derby Trial, however.
The practice of using the Derby Trial as a steppingstone to the Kentucky Derby waned over the years as trainers opted to give horses more time in between prep races. It isn’t unheard of, though. As recently as 2005, Don’t Get Mad finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby after winning the Derby Trial.
Today, it is more common to see horses jump from the Derby Trial to the Preakness Stakes three weeks later, even though a Derby Trial winner has yet to win the Preakness Stakes as his next start.
Is it possible that Baffert really intends to run Chitu back a week later from the Derby Trial to the Kentucky Derby? Perhaps. It all depends on how the horse runs and how he feels about the horse after the race. We’ll all just have to wait and see. And that includes you, Vinceremos!