Four Kentucky Derby prep races highlight Santa Anita's thoroughbred racing season

Breeders' Cup

Josie Huang/KPCC

The sun begins to rise at Santa Anita Park as riders exercise their horses. The thoroughbred that excel in four key races during the season that opens today will carry California's Triple Crown hopes to the Kentucky Derby.

The Santa Anita racing season will open with the usual full slate of thoroughbred racing plus giveaways. But more than Wednesday's free sweatshirts and calendars, what will draw fans to the Arcadia track this season are four races that will produce the California entries in the Kentucky Derby.

And this year, those races are far more important than they've been for the past 26 years.

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The Kentucky Derby has ditched a ratings system it's used since 1986 to choose the field. In its place, it's adopted a points system based on how the horses perform in any of 36 prep races that are run from late September until early April – including four races during the Santa Anita season.

The first one is the Sham Stakes on January 5.

The winner in a Kentucky Derby prep race earns 10 points. Finishing second is worth four points, and third place gets three. A fourth place finisher gets one point. Score points and you earn your way into the Kentucky Derby field – and a shot at a lot of history and a lot of money.

Here are the four Santa Anita races that will produce California's best Kentucky Derby hopefuls. The first two are part of the 19-race Kentucky Derby Prep Season. The last two are among 17 races in the Kentucky Derby Championship Series.

Winning a prep race is only part of the challenge for a jockey, trainer and owner aiming a thoroughbred for horse racing's greatest prize. Keeping that thoroughbred injury-free is just as important, as you'll see.

  • Jan. 5   Sham Stakes   1 mile   $100,000 purse

The race is named for Sham, the rocket-fast 1973 Santa Anita Derby winner who went on to finish second in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. It was Sham's bad luck to run the same year as the greatest thoroughbred of all time: Triple Crown winner Secretariat.

Out of Bounds, last year's Sham Stakes winner, looked like a strong Kentucky Derby contender. But a fractured ankle suffered during a workout at Hollywood Park two months after the Sham win ended his Derby hopes.

  • Feb. 2   Robert B. Lewis Stakes   1-1/16 miles   $200,000 purse

The race is named for the late businessman and thoroughbred owner Robert B. Lewis. Lewis owned Silver Charm, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 1997. He repeated that double winner in 1999 with Charismatic. Lewis also owned the 1994 Preakness winner Timber Country.

I'll Have Another, last year's Robert B. Lewis Stakes winner, went on to thrill racing fans with his next three races. He thundered down the middle of the stretch to nip the highly-regarded Creative Cause at the wire in the Santa Anita Derby. He did the same thing to Bodemeister a month later in the Kentucky Derby, and did it again a month after that in the Preakness Stakes. But a tendon injury the day before the Belmont Stakes took away I'll Have Another's Triple Crown shot.

  • March 9   San Felipe Stakes   1-1/16 miles   $300,000 purse

Creative Cause, last year's San Felipe Stakes winner, had a Santa Anita Derby win in hand until the final strides. That's when I'll Have Another nipped him at the wire. He finished 5th in the Kentucky Derby and 3rd in the Preakness Stakes. He was held out of the Belmont Stakes and retired to stud soon after.

That's a better fate than the one for the 2011 San Felipe Stakes winner Premier Pegasus. Fast but fragile, he suffered an injury that kept him out of the Santa Anita Derby and erased what might have been an exciting Triple Crown run. In May 2001, Premier Pegasus broke down during a training run and was euthanized.

  • April 6   Santa Anita Derby   1-1/8 miles   $750,000 purse

This is the Big Show before the REALLY Big Show – the Kentucky Derby.

Santa Anita Derby winners Hill Gail (1952), Determine (1954), Swaps (1955), Lucky Debonair (1965), Majestic Prince (1969), Affirmed (1978), Winning Colors (1988), Sunday Silence (1989), and I'll Have Another (2012) went on to Kentucky Derby victories a month later. Affirmed kept on going, with victories in the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes to become the most recent Triple Crown winner.

As usual, injuries can scuttle a Santa Anita Derby winner's shot at glory. That was true for I'll Have Another last year – and for Mister Frisky in 1990. His Santa Anita Derby win in 1990 was his 16th straight victory, which earned him status as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. Instead, he ran eighth. Turns out he had an abscess in his esophagus that may have sapped him of strength at precisely the wrong time in his racing career.

With each of the four prep races at Santa Anita, the horses are challenged a bit more. The distances start at a mile for the Sham Stakes, move up to 1-1/16 miles for the Robert B. Lewis Stakes and the San Felipe Stakes, and then to 1-1/8 miles in the Santa Anita Derby.

The Kentucky Derby is longer still: 1-1/4 miles.

The Preakness Stakes is slightly shorter at 1 3/16 miles, while the Belmont Stakes, the last of the Triple Crown races, is the toughest of all: 1-1/2 miles.

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