Over the next 10 weeks, compelling drama will be plentiful as the new “Kentucky Derby Championship Series” begins in earnest and horses attempt to earn their way into the May 4 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands beginning with Saturday’s Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park and the Risen Star at Fair Grounds
To have a horse draped in the garland of roses while raising the solid gold trophy high atop the Kentucky Derby winner’s stand is the Holy Grail for horsemen around the world.
Restricted to 3-year-old Thoroughbreds, horses only have one chance to win the Kentucky Derby, and it’s quite an accomplishment just to receive a berth in the starting gate.
Approximately 26,000 Thoroughbreds were foaled in the United States three years ago in 2010. Merely 1.4% of the crop (369) was nominated to the Triple Crown, and only 20 will be allowed to “Run for the Roses.” The Derby field has been limited to 20 starters since 1975, and at least 20 horses have entered the race since 2004, and 12 of the last 14 years.
Once a horse earns its coveted Kentucky Derby berth, it, in most cases, will race the extended 1 ¼-mile distance for the first time. A combination of speed and the stamina it takes to complete the final eighth of a mile in the Derby often determines a win or loss.
Last June, Churchill Downs Racetrack abandoned the graded stakes earnings criteria that was used from 1986-2012 to determine which 20 horses would have preference for America’s greatest race. Graded stakes are considered the most prestigious races based on the quality of fields from prior years determined by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association in America and the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities.
To date, 18 early Triple Crown nominees have earned at least $200,000 in graded stakes races – recently a total that would safely get a horse into the Kentucky Derby field – but none have been assured a spot in the 2013 Derby starting gate because of Churchill Downs’ provocative new “Road to the Kentucky Derby” eligibility system that has sparked industry-wide discussion.
Instead, track officials instituted a tiered point system that awards a sliding scale of points to the Top 4 finishers in designated races. Sprints, most turf races and other select races were no longer included.
In turn, the Road to the Kentucky Derby was condensed from 185 graded stakes races around the world to a more practical 36-race series that track officials believe are the best events to identify a 3-year-old to go the 1 ¼-mile distance for the $2 million Derby. A similar series also was created for the “Road to the Kentucky Oaks,” the Derby’s companion event for 3-year-old fillies on May 3.
The 19-race “Prep Season” that began in late September and awarded 10 points to the winner, 4 to the runner-up, 2 to third and 1 to fourth, concluded Monday with 48 early Triple Crown nominees grossing points.
Now it’s on to the Championship Series in which the point values of races within the 10-week run up to the first Saturday in May will escalate by 5X or 10X, making these 17 races the most meaningful springboard events in advance of the Derby.
The Top 20 point earners nominated to the Triple Crown at the end of the series will earn a spot in the Derby starting gate if more than 20 horses enter the race.
Churchill Downs officials estimate that between 30 and 40 points will be needed to make the Kentucky Derby field, although it could be as low as 20. Also, when two or more horses have the same number of points, the tiebreaker is earnings in non-restricted stakes races.
Each race in the first leg of the Championship Series that starts Saturday and continues through March 24 is worth 50 points to the winner, 20 to the runner-up, 10 to third and 5 to fourth.
In addition to Saturday’s $400,000 Besilu Stables Fountain of Youth (Grade II) and $400,000 Risen Star (GII), the initial leg includes the $400,000 Gotham (GIII) on March 2; the $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby (GII) and $300,000 San Felipe (GII) on March 9; the $600,000 Rebel (II) on March 16; $550,000 Horsehoe Casino Cincinnati Spiral (GIII) on March 23; and $800,000 Sunland Derby (GIII) on March 24.
Most serve as steppingstones to seven lofty races that comprise the second leg, each worth 100-40-20-10 points (twice as much as the first leg) to the Top 4: the $1 million Besilu Stables Florida Derby (GI), $1 million Louisiana Derby (GII) and $2 million UAE Derby (GII) on March 30; the $1 million Wood Memorial (GI) and $750,000 Santa Anita (GI) on April 6; and the $1 million Arkansas Derby (GI) and $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass (GI) on April 13.
As a result, the winners of races in the first leg and the Top 2 finishers of second leg races should have the upper hand, and horses that earned points during the Prep Season could be in the mix with Top 4 placings.
Horses on the “bubble” looking to increase their point totals have the option of running in two “Wild Card” races with a 20-8-4-2 scale: the $200,000 Coolmore Lexington (GII) on April 20 and $175,000 Derby Trial (GIII) on April 27 – Opening Night of Churchill Downs’ 38-day Spring Meet, which is one week before the Derby.
Top-ranked Shanghai Bobby and No. 2 Goldencents enter the Championship Series with 24 points each.
Shanghai Bobby was crowned North America’s champion 2-year-old male after a perfect 5-for-5 campaign, including triumphs in the Champagne and Grey Goose Breeders’ Juvenile. His first start at 3 was a good second behind No. 5 Itsmyluckyday in the Holy Bull.
Goldencents, who is co-owned by University of Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino, finished second in the Champagne, but returned to win the Delta Jackpot in Louisiana and Sham at his home base at Santa Anita. He is trained by Doug O’Neill, who prevailed in last year’s Derby with champion I’ll Have Another.
Shanghai Bobby has top billing because he has a $1,731,000 to $740,000 edge over Goldencents in non-restricted stakes earnings, which breaks ties when two or more horses have the same number of points.
Shanghai Bobby and Itsmyluckyday, trained by Eddie Plesa Jr., plan to bypass the first leg of the Championship Series and rematch in the Florida Derby.
A Top 4 finish should secure a spot for the juvenile champion. Itsmyluckyday, who was awarded 10 points for his Holy Bull victory, likely needs a Top 3 finish.
Shanghai Bobby is trained by Todd Pletcher, who along with the West Coast’s Bob Baffert, is loaded with talented prospects.
Pletcher, winner of the 2010 Derby with Super Saver, has five horses in the Top 20 – Shanghai Bobby, No. 4 Violence, No. 6 Overanalyze, No. 13 Revolutionary and No. 20 Capo Bastone – as well as No. 37 Delhomme and several unranked hopefuls led by Verrazano and Palace Malice.
Verrazano generated tremendous buzz following his 16 ¼-length romp in a first level allowance race over one mile at Gulfstream Park in a swift 1:34.80. The colt, who debuted with a 7 ¾-length win on New Year’s Day, has to overcome the granddaddy of all so-called “Derby rules.” Apollo, who won the race in 1882, is the only Kentucky Derby winner to have won the Run for the Roses without a race at age 2.
Bettors weren’t frightened as they made Verrazano the top individual choice in the first Kentucky Derby Future Wager on Feb. 8-10.
Pletcher, likely to have starters in most Championship Series races, has Verrazano slated to run next in the Tampa Bay Derby. Violence is the Fountain of Youth headliner, while Palace Malice goes in the Risen Star. Overanalyze will vie for favoritism in the Gotham. Delhomme and/or Capo Bastone could resurface in the Rebel. Meanwhile, Revolutionary has relocated to Florida after overcoming trouble for an eye-catching neck win in the Withers and will be pointed to either the Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby or Arkansas Derby.
Baffert, a three-time Derby winner, has four of the Top 13: No. 8 Den’s Legacy, No. 9 Power Broker, No. 10 Super Ninety Nine and No. 13 Flashback plus top prospects such as Code West, Govenor Charlie, Shakin It Up, Tiz the Truth and War Academy.
Flashback, owned by Gary and Mary West, is widely regarded as the most promising runner in Baffert’s barn. He picked up 10 points for his 6 ¼-length stroll in the 1 1/16-mile Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita, and is expected to remain in Southern California for the March 9 San Felipe.
The Wests also own Code West, Power Broker and the promising Treasury Bill, who was second to Shakin It Up in the seven-furlong San Vicente for trainer Ron Ellis. The latter is expected to ship to Oaklawn Park for the March 16 Rebel to avoid an encounter with Flashback.
Baffert had his fourth straight successful raid of Oaklawn Park’s Southwest when Super Ninety Nine scored a decisive 11 ¼-length victory on Monday to crack the leaderboard.
No. 24 Normandy Invasion is the morning line favorite for the Risen Star, and the fast-closing Remsen runner-up will face No. 3 Oxbow, the front-running 11 ½-length Lecomte winner, and Baffert’s Code West.
Oxbow is conditioned by four-time Kentucky Derby winner and Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who, at 77, could surpass the late Charlie Whittingham as the oldest trainer to win a Derby. Whittingham was 76 when Sunday Silence defeated Easy Goer in the 1989 renewal. He also trains No. 11 Will Take Charge and comebacker Titletown Five, who is co-owned by Louisville native and football legend Paul Hornung.
Another top contender that could make his presence felt in the Championship Series is No. 7 Uncaptured, who recently returned to serious training for trainer Mark Casse and is eyeing the Spiral. Casse also conditions No. 15 Dynamic Sky, who runs in the Tampa Bay Derby, and the promising colt Sky Captain, who is among the Fountain of Youth entries but likely to scratch in favor of the John Battaglia Memorial or Gotham on March 2. All three are owned by John Oxley, who won the 2001 Derby with Monarchos.
The stage is set. Let the Championship Series begin.
10 THINGS TO WATCH THIS WEEK
1. CashCall Futurity winner Violence looks to remain undefeated against 10 rivals in the $400,000 Besilu Stables Fountain of Youth on Saturday at Gulfstream Park.
2. Cerro-IRE, co-owned by Olympic hero Michael Phelps, looks to stamp himself as a legitimate Derby contender in the Fountain of Youth.
3. Fast-closing Remsen runner-up Normandy Invasion makes his long-awaited 3-year-old debut against full field in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds.
4. Hall of Fame jockey and three-time Kentucky Derby winner Gary Stevens, who returned to the saddle in January after a seven-year retirement, hopes to get back on the Derby trail with Proud Strike in the Risen Star.
5. Trainer Todd Pletcher looks to sweep the four Derby and Oaks prep races Saturday with Violence, Palace Malice, Dreaming of Julia and Unlimited Budget.
6. Runaway Lecomte winner Oxbow looks to take another step forward in the Risen Star for four-time Kentucky Derby winning trainer and Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas.
7. Crop Report, a well-regarded Team Valor acquisition after a five-length romp at Newmarket in October, makes his U.S. debut against Grey runner-up Tesseron in an allowance on turf at Gulfstream Park on Saturday. Team Valor and trainer Graham Motion teamed to the 2011 Derby with Animal Kingdom.
8. Highly-regarded juvenile Dreaming of Julia makes her 3-year-old debut against four rivals in Saturday’s Davona Dale at Gulfstream Park, which launches the “Kentucky Oaks Championship Series.”
9. Undefeated 3-year-old filly Unlimited Budget makes her sophomore debut against a competitive field of 10 in the Rachel Alexandra.
10. Larry Jones, winning trainer of the Kentucky Oaks in 2008 and 2012, will saddle Dancinginthecircle and Blue Violet in the Rachel Alexandra.