The historic Remsen Stakes (G2) at Aqueduct ranks as a unique race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. Held over 1 1⁄8 miles, it is the longest juvenile race on the annual schedule, offering a stiff test of speed and stamina for up-and-coming classic contenders.
Unique it might be, but the Remsen wasn’t always such a testing race. First run in 1904 at long-gone Jamaica Racecourse, the Remsen was originally conducted as a sprint. When Johnstown swept the Remsen/Kentucky Derby double in 1938-39, the Remsen was held over a mere six furlongs.
The race distance changed several times through the 1940s and 1950s, settling for a time at one mile when the race was moved to Aqueduct in 1959. This middle distance made the Remsen a solid but less strenuous test of stamina for lightly-raced youngsters, and the change produced a pair of Derby winners as Carry Back (1960-61) and Northern Dancer (1963-64) both parlayed Remsen victories into glory on the first Saturday in May.
The Remsen distance finally shifted to 1 1⁄8 miles around two turns in 1973, after which the purse rose steadily and the race grew in prominence. Kentucky Derby winners Pleasant Colony (1981), Go for Gin (1994), and Thunder Gulch (1995) all thrived over the extended distance of the Remsen, foreshadowing their victories at Churchill Downs with triumphs at Aqueduct. And while 1977 Remsen winner Believe It failed to win a classic, his performance at Aqueduct was unmistakably high-quality as he beat future Hall of Famer Alydar in the stakes-record time of 1:47.80.
Despite the glory of the 1980s and 1990s, the first two decades of the 21st century saw the Remsen enter a significant dry spell. Between 2000 and 2019, only three Remsen starters managed to crack the trifecta in the Kentucky Derby, with none reaching the winner’s circle.
But this dry spell applied only to the Derby, for the Remsen continued to crank out an abundance of future Grade 1 winners, including champions and/or Breeders’ Cup winners Honor Code, Mucho Macho Man, and Court Vision. It’s easy to understand why—with its early December calendar slot, the Remsen is a logical year-end target for late-maturing juveniles with a strong chance to progress during their 3-year-old seasons.
And with a total of 17 Kentucky Derby qualification points up for grabs among the top four finishers, you can bet the Remsen will retain its prominent place on the national racing calendar.
By J. Keeler Johnson