For some at Saratoga, the dream of making the Kentucky Derby starts a year prior to the first Saturday in May.
For one 2017 Derby entry, Practical Joke, that dream began on the third Tuesday in May of 2016, when he recorded his first three-furlong workout at Saratoga’s famed Oklahoma Training Track. He soon won his debut maiden race on August 6, then captured the Grade 1 Hopeful on Labor Day.
One of the classiest horses entering the Derby gate, the Chad Brown trainee continued to triumph after his days at Saratoga, winning the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont, then hitting the board in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita, the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream, and the Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
Practical Joke leads the charge of horses entered in this year’s Derby that carry strong ties back to last year’s summer at Saratoga. In total, six of the 20 expected 2017 Kentucky Derby entrants raced there in 2016.
Saratoga Special & Hopeful History
The Grade 2 Saratoga Special winner Gunnevera didn’t train at Saratoga, but trainer Antonio Sano did ship him up from Florida to win one of The Spa’s biggest races for juvenile males. Gunnevera continued to win multiple stakes after his Saratoga triumph, including the Grade 3 Delta Downs Jackpot and the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth.
By winning the Saratoga Special and Hopeful, Gunnevera and Practical Joke will enter rare air when they enter the Derby gate. Not since 1981 have two separate winners of those Saratoga stakes run together in the Derby. Tap Shoes won the 1980 Hopeful and Well Decorated won the 1980 Saratoga Special before finishing 14th and 16th, respectively, in the 1981 Derby.
Prior to 1981, the last time that two separate winners of these races entered the Derby gate, eventual Triple Crown winner Affirmed won the 1978 Kentucky Derby after winning the Hopeful, while Darby Creek Road ran fourth in the Derby after winning the Saratoga Special.
Five horses have won both the Saratoga Special and the Hopeful before running in the Derby the next year: Favorite Trick (1998 Derby), Summer Squall (1990), Gulch (1987), Chief’s Crown (1985), and General Assembly (1979).
Saratoga “Baby Races”
Saratoga has a strong history of “baby races” producing Derby winners, including Secretariat (1973 Derby winner after winning the Sanford and Hopeful), Swale (1984 Derby winner after winning the Saratoga Special), and Regret, who became the first filly to win the Derby (1915) after winning the Hopeful. The overall list is exhaustive; in 2013, Orb won the Kentucky Derby after finishing third in his career debut at Saratoga.
Two likely Derby favorites, Always Dreaming and Classic Empire, both raced at Saratoga in 2016.
Always Dreaming raced at Saratoga on Alabama Day, going off as the favorite in a maiden race before losing to Blame Will by a neck. Always Dreaming was with the Dominick Schettino barn in 2016 but shifted to Todd Pletcher’s outfit to start 2017 when his owners joined with the St. Elias group.
Classic Empire had an eventful experience in the Hopeful when he decided to make a right-hand turn shortly after departing the gate, throwing rider Irad Ortiz, Jr., to start the race and disappointing those who had made him the betting favorite. That race built up Classic Empire’s “bad boy” image, and he returned with blinkers on to win two Grade 1s, the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, on his way to being named Champion Two-Year Old Male of 2016.
Hence, Tapwrit, and Patch also trained and raced at The Spa in 2016.
Hence debuted on the Travers’ Day undercard in a maiden race, but he could only place 6th.
Tapwrit has much stronger roots in Saratoga, having been sold at the 2015 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Select sale as a yearling for $1.2 million. He returned to Saratoga to train in the Pletcher barn but was disappointing in his debut on September 3, finishing tenth, some 18 lengths behind the winner. Pletcher was patient with the Tapit colt, and Tapwrit stayed in Saratoga until mid-October, working over the Oklahoma Training Track, before shipping to Florida to win three races, including the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby in Florida.
Much like Practical Joke, Patch was an early arrival to Saratoga in May 2016. He worked out over the Oklahoma Training Track for Pletcher before resting until October, at which point he got ready for his debut in 2017 in Florida.
With some of the top horses having summered there last year, Saratoga fans have a strong local interest in the Derby. There may be many questions to answer on Saturday at the Derby, but it is never too early to also ask: “Who will come back to Saratoga in 2017 to run in the Travers?”