That Championship Season
by Tom Carley
This past weekend we reached a turning point in the Kentucky Derby Season. Not because we are less than 75 days to the Derby, but for a reason which will make it easier for all fans to identify who will make up the Derby field. We have entered what is now known as the:
Kentucky Derby Championship Series
This is a media phrase built on the Breeder’s Cup “Win and You’re In” campaign in which the winners of certain races are guaranteed a spot in certain races on Breeder’s Cup day. For example the winner of the Stephen Foster is guaranteed a spot in the Breeder’s Cup Classic.
There are 16 races in the Series. With the exception of two lower point races, the series represents the following:
7 races in which points are awarded as follows:
Winner 50 points
2nd place finisher 20 points
3rd place finisher 10 points
4th place finisher 5 points
The next 7 races are held 3 to 5 weeks after the above races at the same racetracks as the first level races. The exception is the second round races of the UAE Derby & Blue Grass Stakes. The second level races stretch out in distance to 1-1/8 miles (the exception is the UAE Derby which is run at 1-13/16 miles) and are more prestigious races than the first level of races in the series.
The points awarded also increase dramatically in these races:
Winner 100 points
2nd place finisher 40 points
3rd place finisher 20 points
4th place finisher 10 points
What this means is that, assuming it takes 30 points to have enough points to be in the Kentucky Derby field, the winner of a first series race– or a top two finisher in a second series race– would have more than enough points to ensure themselves of qualifying for the Kentucky Derby.
Effect on trainer strategy
This point structure that emphasizes winning performances closer to Derby Day has changed the way most trainers think. Trainers are not starting their horses nearly as much as two-year-olds, as was done before the current Derby points system. Trainers used to focus on making the horse’s career debut around midsummer of their two-year-old year. The Saratoga meet (held July through Labor Day) used to be a showcase for the two-year-olds who hoped to win the Derby the following May.
What you see now is trainers waiting much later in the racing season to start their horses. This strategy allows the horses to physically mature and avoid early injuries such as bucked shins (similar to a shin splint in a human) that come as a result of training while the horse is growing. Trainers no longer fear that they will be missing out on an opportunity to earn Derby points because they know there will be over a dozen races that can provide enough points for Derby inclusion.
Trainer Todd Pletcher used to debut his horses at Saratoga as two-year-olds. He has the most 2020 Triple Crown nominees with 26 horses nominated (see Edition 1 for an explanation on the nomination process), yet he has waited until mid-February to have most of his 3-year-olds start their season.
I do expect this trend to continue. And since Churchill Downs recently purchased Turfway Park– which hosts the Spiral, a lower end Derby prep awarding 20 points to the winner– I see in future years another one or two races that will provide the winner enough points to get into the coveted Kentucky Derby.
Trainers also realize they can ship to Dubai to accrue enough points to run in the Derby while facing easier competition. Last year, Plus Que Parfait was an “also ran” in the Louisiana prep races. However, his trainer shipped this equine to Dubai for the UAE Derby, and he won the race to earn enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. Trainer Doug O’Brien, two-time Kentucky Derby winner, has done this as well.
Try not fall in love with a horse in the Valentine month of February. The cast of Derby hopeful characters will expand the closer to May we get.
Let’s recap last week’s Derby prep action:
The prep races last week offered us an important lesson that is often lost on the path to Louisville. Too many times we get so caught up in speed figures and results that we simply do not take the time to look how a horse ran in a previous race. In two Derby preps last weekend, the race was won by a horse that failed to win their previous Derby prep (10 pointers). But I mentioned here to keep your eye on the equine contenders as they were impacted by race trouble, such as traffic, a bad break or a muddy racetrack.
Do not be afraid to pick a Derby horse that may not have won many races in their 3-year-old season. This actually will get you better odds. You need only look at last year and Country House. He had won only 2 of 7 races, but ran a visually good Louisiana prep race in the Risen Star, suffering traffic trouble. Country House went off as the longest shot on the board Derby Day, and will forever be known as the 2019 Kentucky Derby Champion.
Risen Star I & II
The Risen star at the Fairgrounds proved to be such a popular race that 23 horses entered. The management at the racetrack decided to run this as two races awarding Derby points to the winner of each race.
In the first division, Mr. Monomy–a horse I mentioned previously– took the early lead and did not look back. He suffered traffic trouble in the LeComte, and his jockey saw the opportunity to take him to front of the field. And he never looked back. LeComte winner Enforceable made a huge run in the long Fairgrounds stretch and ran second. Both of these horses now have the necessary points to qualify for the Derby. Mr. Monomy ran a good Beyer speed figure of 92, and with a little progression might be a horse that will be under the radar come May 2.
The second division featured a strong field. That field was highlighted by a horse that ran 2nd in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile last November. However, the winner was a surprise out of the Bill Mott (trainer of last year’s Derby winner) barn named Modernist. He had only run three times before and had just won his first race his last time out. However, with the race being lengthened from 1-1/16 miles to 1-1/8 mile– and the equine contender being the only horse that had ever run that far– Modernist used his stamina to lead him to victory and 50 Derby points.
The Holy Bull is always one of the most anticipated early year Derby preps because we get a first glimpse of what the strong Florida group of 3-year-olds look like on the track. Tiz the Law was heavily favored after winning the Champagne 2 races back and breaking his maiden in his career debut at Saratoga. “Tiz” had a rough trip on a sloppy racetrack in the Kentucky Jockey Club, finishing 3rd. He put in a strong effort and won the Holy Bull easily despite yet another rough trip. His trainer, Barclay Tagg– who won the Derby with Funny Cide— knows a good horse when he sees one. After the win, he said the horse would wait until the Louisiana Derby to run his final prep. That blows my mind! Why skip the Florida preps to space out a start that will lead to the horse either having 6 weeks off until the Derby or be in a spot to run 3 times in 6 weeks if he needs to earn qualifying points?
Toledo is a highly respected horse trained by Chad Brown. While never running in a stakes race prior to this race, his speed figures were the highest in the field. He ran a respectable 3rd and both horses should be in the gate in Louisville.
Oakland Park provided some serious Derby prep action on President’s Day. This field re-tuned many who contested the first prep race, the Smarty Jones. In theSmarty Jones, Silver Prospector had all kinds of trouble at the start of the race, but was the only horse gaining any ground at the end. Last Monday he showed what he is made of, breaking better and keeping near the lead. When Silver Prospector was asked to run harder by his jockey, he powered his way to the front, winning easily. Trainer Steve Asmussen thinks highly of his horse, as he was glowingly bragging on him in post-race interviews.
All in the Gate
I saw something that really caught my eye last week. Churchill Downs has purchased a starting gate that can house all 20 Derby horses. In prior years, the regular starting gate used housed only 14 horses, and a special/auxiliary gate would hold horses in post positions 15 through 20. This gave a slight advantage to the horse at the outer end of the regular gate— as well as the inner horse in the auxiliary gate— as they had extra room to maneuver in the tight quarters at the start of the race. The 20-horse gate will give each horse equal spacing between the horse to his inside and outside. This makes one thing less to consider when you analyze the post positions the days before the Derby.