Although the Lexington (G3) isn’t the most lucrative prize on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, the Keeneland fixture nevertheless holds a special place on the Derby trail.
Traditionally one of the final Derby prep races, the Lexington provides one last opportunity for horses in need of qualification points to earn their way into the Derby field. And even when the Lexington fails to produce a Derby starter, it typically serves as a prominent steppingstone toward the Preakness (G1), the second jewel of the Triple Crown.
Held over 1 1⁄16 miles, the current version of the Lexington was run for the first time in 1984, and the race wasted no time trumpeting its status as a viable steppingstone toward the spring classics. Inaugural Lexington runner-up Swale came right back to win the Kentucky Derby, while 1985 Lexington winner Stephan’s Odyssey parlayed his triumph at Keeneland into victory in the Belmont Stakes (G1), the final leg of the Triple Crown.
The Lexington achieved graded status in 1986, and during the next two decades it produced a steady stream of high-profile horses. Champions and/or classic winners Forty Niner (1989), Risen Star (1989), Pleasant Tap (1990), Hansel (1991), Charismatic (1999), and Commendable (2000) all contested the Lexington and the Kentucky Derby; Charismatic, in fact, won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness after crushing his Lexington rivals in the stakes-record time of 1:41.06.
But the momentum of the Lexington slowed considerably after Keeneland transitioned from a dirt track to a synthetic surface in time for the 2007 spring meet. After cranking out 34 Kentucky Derby starters between 1984 and 2006, the Lexington produced just two Derby contestants during the synthetic era, which lasted through 2014.
The return of dirt racing in 2015 coincided with a shift in the date of the Lexington, which moved from two weeks before the Kentucky Derby to three weeks out. These changes triggered a rebound for the Lexington, which was promptly won by future classic-placed runners Divining Rod (2015), Senior Investment (2017), and Owendale (2019), Kentucky Derby starter My Boy Jack (2018), and Grade 1 winner Collected (2016).
The Lexington awards Kentucky Derby qualification points on a 20-8-4-2 split to the top four finishers.
By J. Keeler Johnson