It can be tricky for racing fans to remember the name of the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) from year to year. The winter fixture at Turfway Park has been run under 11 different names since its inauguration as the Spiral Stakes in 1972.
But some things never change, and that includes the Jeff Ruby’s status as a prominent Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race. While the Jeff Ruby peaked during the 1980s and 1990s, cranking out 43 Derby starters in 20 years, the 1 1⁄8-mile race still awards 20 Derby qualification points to the winner and continues to produce a smattering of significant horses.
The 1990s were a glorious time for the Jeff Ruby, then a Grade 2 carrying a purse between $500,000 and $750,000. The list of winner’s read like a “who’s who” of sophomore stars. Summer Squall (1990) and Prairie Bayou (1993) used the Jeff Ruby to prep for runner-up efforts in the Kentucky Derby and victories in the Preakness (G1). Hansel (1991) went one better by winning both the Preakness and the Belmont, while Lil E. Tee (1992) arguably trumped them all with his upset victory in the Kentucky Derby.
But in the summer of 2005, Turfway Park replaced their traditional dirt track with a synthetic surface, which has made the Jeff Ruby more attractive to turf horses than proven dirt runners with an eye on the Triple Crown. Nevertheless, the reconfigured Jeff Ruby has produced occasional highlights. The speedy Hard Spun prevailed in 2007 before finishing second in the Kentucky Derby, while grass star Animal Kingdom pulled off an improbable Jeff Ruby/Derby double in 2011.
Hansel officially holds the stakes record, clocking the 1 1⁄8-mile distance in a swift 1:46.60, though Hard Spun’s time of 1:49.41 ranks as the fastest since the start of the synthetic era. Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day, the guide of Summer Squall and Lil E. Tee, has been the most successful rider in the Jeff Ruby with five victories to his credit.
By J. Keeler Johnson