Knowing your Kentucky Derby preps

What do you watch, where do you turn and what's important? Is this a three-ring circus, a track meet or the road to the Kentucky Derby?

Yes, the Tampa Bay Derby has become one of the most productive and meaningful races on the road to Kentucky.

With so much activity and so many races on this run-up to the Triple Crown, you can't always be sure what's important. Much isn't. What looks like an array of possibility and potential can become a farrago of insignificance and trivia. Evolving schedules, changed conditions and synthetic surfaces have only added to the confusion, dispelling many traditional assumptions about which races are actually meaningful.

Some stakes are announcements, but others are, well, mummery. And so what Triple Crown preps do you absolutely, positively need to see? What races produce the horses that have found the most success in the Kentucky Derby?

Based on results over the last 10 years, three races stand out: the Arkansas Derby, the Florida Derby and the Tampa Bay Derby. Together, they've produced 61 Kentucky Derby starters who have six wins, four seconds and four thirds in this most famous of races.

Yes, the Tampa Bay Derby has become one of the most productive and meaningful races on the road to Kentucky. And that, as much as anything, indicates how the sinuous path can veer in unexpected directions. In terms of its preparatory significance, the Tampa Bay Derby has assumed the position once occupied by the Fountain of Youth.

From 1953 through 2004, the Fountain of Youth was run at 1 1/16 miles. And during that period, such horses as Tim Tam, Kauai King, Forward Pass, Pleasant Colony, Spectacular Bid, Swale, Unbridled, Go For Gin, and Thunder Gulch used the race to prepare for the Kentucky Derby, which they all won.

For six of the last seven years, however, or since Gulfstream Park expanded its oval, the Fountain of Youth has been run at 1 1/8 miles (one mile in 2009). And during those seven years, the race produced 16 Kentucky Derby starters whose success was limited to a runner-up finish by Ice Box in 2010.

Over those same seven years, Tampa Bay's showcase race produced 13 Kentucky Derby starters. Two of them, Street Sense and Super Saver, won the roseate Derby, and two more, Bluegrass Cat and Musket Man, finished "in the money," or top three.

So, yes, the Tampa Bay Derby has become one of the significant stops on the road to Kentucky. And Saturday's renewal has attracted one of the more intriguing but relatively inconspicuous prospects, Take Charge Indy.

A troubled fifth in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Take Charge Indy returned to competition 11 weeks later in a 1 1/16-mile allowance affair at Gulfstream. Fresh and eager, he stalked a colt named Bartolome, who set a lively pace (47.12 for the half-mile on an officially "good" surface); Take Charge Indy moved powerfully to the lead in the second turn, opened up a clear advantage and momentarily seemed destined for the winner's circle. But then El Padrino put in a jaw-dropping charge to win by two lengths.

To provide some context: That same day at Gulfstream, Algorithms won the Holy Bull Stakes, a one-turn mile, in 1:36.17; Take Charge Indy's split, or time, for the mile, around two turns, was 1:36.28. And at the wire, from Take Charge Indy, it was nearly 14 lengths back to the third horse, Argentine Tango. As for El Padrino, the chestnut monster who's trained by Todd Pletcher, he won the Fair Grounds' Risen Star Stakes in his next outing to launch himself into the vanguard traveling to Kentucky.

The Fountain of Youth this year returned to 1 1/16 miles, and having been won by Union Rags it should return to its former position of significance. But for the moment, Saturday's Tampa Bay Derby looms large.

The Santa Anita Derby is another stakes race that could regain its significance. Yes, it's difficult to imagine the Santa Anita Derby, which over the years has produced such horses as Affirmed, Majestic Prince, Winning Colors, Silver Charm and Sunday Silence, as anything but eminently significant. But over the last 10 years, the race's impact on the Kentucky Derby has been mild.

Of the 29 starters to come out of the Santa Anita race, only Giacomo won the Kentucky Derby. Three others ran well enough to finish "in the money" at Churchill. Still, that's statistically modest and hardly what you'd expect from a race of such historical prominence. But last year, Santa Anita replaced its synthetic surface with a dirt track, and this year's West Coast 3-year-olds, despite the recent injury to Out Of Bounds, seem strong.

Many of them meet Saturday in the San Felipe Stakes, where Creative Cause looks especially formidable. Last year, he won the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita and ran third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He finished third again when making his seasonal debut in the seven-furlong San Vicente, but his powerful run through the stretch and his strong gallop-out suggest he's ready to step forward Saturday. His trainer, Mike Harrington, entered Empire Way, too. A developing colt who ran second in the Robert Lewis Stakes, Empire Way appears to be improving with maturity and more distance.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert also has two in the San Felipe: Bodemeister, a sensational maiden winner who'll make his stakes debut, and Liaison, who nearly joined his rider on the ground during the stretch run of the Robert Lewis.

"He got a little rank," Baffert said, explaining Liaison's last outing, where the colt seemed eager early but then dropped back before clipping heels. "I want him to relax and finish. He wants to come from behind."

For the first time, Liaison will race without his customary blinkers Saturday. Also among those entered are Midnight Transfer, who could control the pace, and Rousing Sermon, who can unleash a powerful kick, and Blingo, a lightly raced colt who also can finish with a rush.

The San Felipe field is deep with talent, and some of these promising youngsters no doubt will advance to the Santa Anita Derby on April 7 and perhaps line up at Churchill Downs on May 5. Still, the Florida and Arkansas Derbies have become the most productive roadside attractions on the Triple Crown trail.

But for recent impact on the Triple Crown, no prep compares to the Arkansas Derby.

Since 2002, the Florida Derby has produced 24 Kentucky Derby starters, including two winners (Barbaro and Big Brown) and two runners-up (Ice Box and Empire Maker). And with Union Rags and Alpha aimed at this year's Florida Derby on March 31, the race could add another layer of significance to its stature.

But for recent impact on the Triple Crown, no prep compares to the Arkansas Derby. Horses coming out of the million-dollar extravaganza at Oaklawn Park have won seven Triple Crown races in the last eight years: two Kentucky Derbies (Smarty Jones and Super Saver), three Preaknesses (Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Curlin) and two Belmonts (Afleet Alex and Summer Bird). The Arkansas Derby also produced Nehro, who was last year's Derby runner-up, and Steppenwolfer, who ran third in Kentucky in 2006. In that period, the Arkansas Derby has produced 20 Kentucky Derby starters, with two wins, a second and a third. (Rachel Alexandra, who won the 2009 Preakness, also raced at Oaklawn, of course, winning the Fantasy Stakes.)

Like the Florida Derby, the Arkansas Derby, which will be run on April 14, is likely to maintain its lofty status among preps. Possible starters at Oaklawn include Gemologist, Sabercat, Secret Circle and Castaway, all stakes winners traveling prominently in the general direction of Kentucky.

And so during this charge to Kentucky, this track meet-cum-three-ring circus, where it's easy to lose sight of what's important, you might let recent history be your guide. Of course, you could also just follow trainers Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher.