The Derby Picture Gets Clearer
by Tom Carley
Last week you may have noticed that there was no column. I always take a week off as we get ready to enter the last 50 days. This allows me to rest and get my focus as we enter the last of the 50-point races, and the field starts to take shape. Assuming that it will take 25 points to get into the Derby, there are already 9 horses that have qualified.
Almost half of the field has been set for the race: eight horses that have 25 points and a Japanese horse that will likely come to the Derby. It is now time to look at these equines in order of the points they have earned, with a little background on each.
Authentic 60 points Bob Baffert’s number one built in his 2020 Derby pistol. Remained undefeated in winning the San Felipe last weekend. Gamely dueled with a foe in the stretch and held on to win. Also, in last week’s Derby futures pool, he was the lowest priced individual horse. No chinks in the armor. Next stop the Santa Anita Derby and then Louisville.
Ete Indian 54 Points Won the Fountain of Youth from the outside post position. This is not easy to do in the Gulfstream Park configuration. Looking at the race, the jockey made a great move to get him to the rail from the outside post. Once Ete Indian got the lead, he never gave it up. I just think the racetrack favored speed horses that day, and he did not have the fast pace to overcome. This will not be true May 2. I prefer his barn mate Sol Volante, who ran second on Tampa last week.
Mischievous Alex 50 Points Won the Gotham last weekend at Aqueduct. Has done nothing wrong on the path to Louisville. Trained by John Servis, who won the 2005 Derby with Smarty Jones. I want to see how he stretches out to 9 furlongs in the Wood Memorial before trying 10 furlongs on Derby Day.
King Guillermo 50 Points A feel good story as he won the Tampa Bay Derby at odds of 49:1 last weekend. The ownership group has to pay the late nomination fee of $6,000 to get him in the field as he was not nominated for $600 in January. I do not like this horse to stretch out to 10 furlongs, but he did pull off one upset.
Modernist 50 Points Won the Risen Star for Bill Mott. Has proven he gets better with distance, winning 2 races already at 9 furlongs. Could be a nice long shot come Derby Day. I will be interested to see where Mott runs Modernist’s next race, since he has enough Derby points. I would expect him to run in the Florida Derby 5 weeks before the Derby.
Enforceable 33 points The winner of the LeComte for trainer Mark Casse, and also ran 2nd in the Risen Star. We will get to see him in the Louisiana Derby and then a 6 week layoff to the Derby. He has never ran a bad race, but somehow manages to get into trouble and have a rough trip.
Storm the Court 32 Points Winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile started the year by running on the board in the San Felipe. I commented how much of an upset I thought he pulled off in the Juvenile and I think that, as other horses mature, he will just become one of the other “also rans” of this division.
Sole Volante 30 points Overcame a traffic plagued trip to run 2nd in Tampa. Was the only horse gaining at the end of the race. I will watch his last Derby prep closely, but he is one of the horses I have my eye on this year.
Thousand Words 25 points After winning his first three races, this Bob Baffert-trained horse ran off the board in the San Felipe. He was exposed for not having the talent that his stable mate has, but few in this division do. Whispers have started Baffert will ship this horse east to the Blue Grass Stakes (a race Baffert rarely enters) or the Wood Memorial for his final Derby prep keeping him away from Authentic.
Café Pharaoh Japanese horse who has virtually wrapped up the Japanese invitation to the Derby and whose trainer has indicated he will run in Louisville. I question the quality of competition this one has faced, but Churchill will love the additional publicity the Derby will get in Japan with a local participant.
Mr. Monomoy The winner of the other division of the Risen Star has an ankle injury and will not be recovered in time to run in the Kentucky Derby.
Maxfield A published article last week indicated he needed longer than anticipated to recover from his knee surgery and will point toward the Preakness
Please note the above were my two Derby horses on February 1.
Dennis’ Moment The favorite on November 1 has only 10 points and needs to run at least 3rd in the Florida Derby to make the Derby field.
Max Player The winner of the Withers has to run in the top 3 in the Wood Memorial to have enough points to qualify.
Effect on trainer strategy
The importance of having a horse earn enough points to qualify for the Derby before the middle of March can’t be stressed enough. The trainers of those horses listed above now have the luxury of setting the horse’s schedule to have the horse peak on May 2. They can customize their schedule, instead of having to work around the race schedule to earn points needed to qualify. We are 53 days out from the Derby which would allow each horse one more race before the Derby, as well as workouts each week until about 8-10 days before the race. Depending on how much space between races each horse needs, the trainers should have the schedules set.
The late date also is forcing some trainers to begin shipping horses to other racetracks in order to earn points, while at the same time not taking any points away from a stablemate. As usual, two names on the top of this list are Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher. Baffert is shipping Nadal (10 points) to Oaklawn to run in the Rebel this week and then will likely spin him back in the Arkansas Derby. This will give him three races in 7 weeks, which is more than Baffert prefers to run his 3-year-olds. He also has Eight Rings, High Velocity and Thousand Words, all of which will be shipped away from Santa Anita in order to avoid Baffert’s best 3-year-old, Authenticate.
Trainers are finding themselves in the spot of having to ask their horse to race three times in 6 weeks if they try to give themselves two chances to run in 100 point races. The Louisiana Derby will be run next week (six weeks out) and then the Arkansas Derby will be run 3 weeks later (three weeks from the Derby). Bill Mott did this last year with Country House, who needed to run at least third in the Arkansas Derby after a dismal Louisiana Derby in order to make the Derby field. He did so and won.
While each trainer has their own desired schedule for bringing a horse to the races, it is obvious that adjustments to a schedule will affect the Derby performance of some horses. Take notice of adjustments the horses make over the next 3 weeks.
The other component of a trainer’s pre-derby activity is the selection of a jockey. Unlike prior years, there are very few jockeys who have made a commitment to ride certain horses in the Derby. After this next bunch of prep races in the next three weeks, we will begin to see (it has been going on behind the scenes for months) trainers begin to offer mounts on certain horses to specific riders. In the next three weeks I will list my best guesstimate of which riders are showing preference to ride certain horses. I expect Steve Asmussen to have more than one Derby entrant, and would give more consideration to the horse the barn’s go-to rider Ricardo Santana chooses to ride.
The Derby picture has gotten clearer in the last few weeks and almost half the field is set. The picture will fully develop in the next month and give us time to look forward to the best day of the year.