Where to Travel Before the Derby: The Prep Races

The anticipation for the “Run for the Roses” is palpable. Every year, thoroughbred hopefuls embark on a rigorous journey towards the ultimate challenge – the Kentucky Derby. But before the grand spectacle at Churchill Downs, these young athletes face a series of crucial stepping stones: the Kentucky Derby prep races.

These races, scattered across the United States, offer a thrilling prelude to the Derby. Not only do they grant the coveted points needed for Derby qualification, but they also serve as a testing ground.

Showcasing the emerging talent and shaping the narrative leading up to the big event.  For the dedicated horse racing enthusiast, the Kentucky Derby prep races present a unique opportunity to witness these future stars in action and experience the electrifying atmosphere firsthand.

A Journey Through the Prep Season:

The Kentucky Derby prep season stretches from September of the preceding year to the spring, culminating in the Derby itself.  This extended period allows trainers to strategically plan their horses’ campaigns, ensuring they peak at the right time.

Early Battles in the East and South:

The prep season kicks off on the East Coast with the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack in New York, typically held in late December. This Grade II race for 2-year-old marks the initial test for hopefuls. As winter descends, the focus shifts southward to tracks like Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans and Tampa Bay Downs in Florida.

Here, the journey truly begins:

  • Fair Grounds Race Course (New Orleans, Louisiana):  Steeped in rich history dating back to the 1800s, Fair Grounds offers a unique blend of Southern charm and thoroughbred excitement. The Lecomte Stakes in January and the Risen Star Stakes in February are key races on the “Road to the Kentucky Derby,” attracting a mix of local favorites and national contenders.
  • Tampa Bay Downs (Tampa, Florida):  This vibrant track provides a welcoming atmosphere for horse racing enthusiasts. The Sam F. Davis Stakes in February is a major prep race, often featuring horses exiting strong performances at Gulfstream Park.

West Coast Enters the Fray:

Come February, the West Coast joins the fray. California’s Santa Anita Park plays host to the prestigious San Felipe Stakes, while Arizona’s Turf Paradise Race Course stages the Sunland Derby. These races attract top contenders vying for valuable points and a chance to solidify their Derby aspirations.

  • Santa Anita Park (Arcadia, California):  A legendary track known for hosting the Breeders’ Cup on multiple occasions, Santa Anita Park offers a world-class racing experience. The San Felipe Stakes in March is a major stepping stone, often featuring Kentucky Derby hopefuls who have trained in California throughout the winter.
  • Turf Paradise Race Course (Phoenix, Arizona):  While not as prominent as other venues on the circuit, Turf Paradise provides a more intimate racing experience. The Sunland Derby in March offers Arizona-based contenders a crucial opportunity to earn points and potentially secure a spot in the Kentucky Derby.

The East Coast Heats Up:

March signals a flurry of activity on the East Coast. Aqueduct witnesses the Wood Memorial Stakes, while the Florida Derby takes center stage at Gulfstream Park. These Grade I events are major stepping stones, often featuring Derby favorites and generating significant national attention.

  • Aqueduct Racetrack (New York):  Located in the heart of Queens, New York, Aqueduct offers a fast-paced racing experience. The Wood Memorial Stakes in April is a prestigious East Coast prep race, consistently attracting top Kentucky Derby contenders.
  • Gulfstream Park (Hallandale Beach, Florida):  This iconic track provides a luxurious experience with its world-class facilities and vibrant South Florida setting. The Florida Derby in April is a major prep race, often featuring established contenders emerging from strong performances at Gulfstream throughout the winter.

The Championship Series: A Final Push

As spring unfolds, the Kentucky Derby Championship Series intensifies the competition. Races like the TwinSpires Louisiana Derby (Fair Grounds) and the Arkansas Derby (Oaklawn Park) offer the final opportunity for horses to accumulate points and secure their place in the starting gate at Churchill Downs.

  • Oaklawn Park (Hot Springs, Arkansas): Boasting a rich racing history dating back to the 1875, Oaklawn Park offers a festive atmosphere and a delightful weekend getaway. The Arkansas Derby in April is a major prep race, attracting horses from across the country vying for their Derby dream.

Experiencing the Thrill: Top Destinations for Prep Race Travel

Planning a trip around the Kentucky Derby prep races allows you to witness the sport’s rising stars and immerse yourself in the vibrant atmosphere of horse-racing’s lesser-known venues. Here are some additional top destinations to consider:

  • Laurel Park (Laurel, Maryland): This historic track, established in 1911, hosts the Federico Tesio Stakes in April. This race offers a chance to see future stars emerge from the Mid-Atlantic region.
  • Keeneland Race Course (Lexington, Kentucky):  Nicknamed “The Bluegrass,” Keeneland offers a quintessential Kentucky racing experience. While not directly part of the Kentucky Derby prep season, some Derby hopefuls may compete here before heading to Churchill Downs.

Beyond the Races: Exploring the Local Culture

Each location on the Kentucky Derby prep race circuit offers a distinct cultural experience:

  • New Orleans: Immerse yourself in the city’s renowned cuisine, from beignets and gumbo to po’boys and jambalaya. Explore the vibrant music scene, catching live jazz in the French Quarter or attending a second-line parade.
  • Hot Springs:  Unwind in the natural hot springs and historic bathhouses. Visit the Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa, a National Historic Landmark, or explore the surrounding Ouachita National Forest.
  • South Florida:  Bask in the sunshine on pristine beaches, try your luck at the casinos, or experience the lively nightlife scene in Miami or Fort Lauderdale.

Tips for the Savvy Traveler:

  • Plan in Advance: Popular races often see high hotel occupancy rates. Booking accommodations well in advance, especially for major events like the Florida Derby or Wood Memorial, is crucial.
  • Consider Package Deals: Some racetracks offer combination packages that include tickets, meals, and even hotel stays. These can be a cost-effective way to experience the races.
  • Embrace the Local Culture: Take time to explore the city beyond the racetrack. Sample the local cuisine, visit historical landmarks, or experience the unique character of each destination.

Attending the Kentucky Derby prep races is an enriching experience for any horse racing aficionado. Witnessing future stars in action, soaking in the unique atmosphere of each venue, and exploring the surrounding cities creates a memorable journey on the road to the “Run for the Roses.”Remember: While the Kentucky Derby is the ultimate goal, the prep races offer a chance to witness the development of these young athletes and gain valuable insights into the contenders vying for horse racing’s biggest prize. So, pack your bags, plan your itinerary, and embark on an unforgettable adventure following the trail to the Kentucky Derby.

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