Hitting Our Stride
By Tom Carley
January 19, 2021
The momentum toward the First Saturday in May is really picking up velocity. Last weekend the first Derby prep of 2021 was held. This week we get a rare Friday Derby prep race with the opening of Oaklawn’s 2021 meet. The Eclipse Awards will be given out later in the week bringing an end to 2020 (Thank God) and propelling us down the road which ends May 1 in Louisville.
Next 30 days
Rarely do I look forward a month when analyzing the Derby prep races. Injuries can sideline horses or result in missed starts, weather can lead to horses changing their schedules, and trainers can change a horse’s schedule to avoid a barn mate or otherwise superior horse. Frankly, these races only offer 10 points to the winner, so they really are not that important in the scheme of things.
However, I do feel that this year it will be more important than in years past for horses to build up not only a strong foundation of races, but also begin to earn Derby points while the stronger horses are still sitting on the sidelines. There are 20 available spots in the Derby field. 14 of these will be taken by these horses, hence the need for less strong contenders to pick up points early on the Derby Trail.
This group of 3-year-olds appears to be much deeper than in years past. Because of this, the horses racing now are really trying to build up points for the approximately 4-6 spots that will remain in the field.
As I see the field now, horses from these races will qualify for 14 post positions come May 1st in Lexington:
Points for all these races are substantial :
20 FOURTH PLACE
As we saw in last week’s races in New Orleans, good horses raced and did not win. This put them in a position that will force them to earn points in future races to make up for opportunities missed in prior prep races. I feel a horse needs to earn about 34 points to be assured of a position in the starting gate. The competition will only get tougher, so horses earning points in the next month (where winners get anywhere from 10 to 20 points) will have a real advantage to qualify for the Derby.
Say it Ain’t So Jackie
Last Fall, everyone thought Jackie’s Warrior was by far and away the most superior horse of this Derby class. People used phrases like “horse of a lifetime” to describe him as recently as last October. He won 4 races impressively before running 4th in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile. Last week it was announced that he will be skipping the early derby prep races and running in Saudi Arabia in early March in a race that pays $900,000 to the winner. The horse would have to win a triple crown race to earn this much money in a single race. This tells me one of two things.
- Might have questions if the horse can win a race at 1¼ miles. Therefore, the horse will not focus on the Derby and win as much money as possible now.
- May feel the horse is so talented that they can alter the schedule to fly to Saudi Arabia, win $900,000 and then come back and run first or second in an early April prep race and then race in the Kentucky Derby.
I have no inside information and have not read anywhere where someone has given an opinion on the strategy. However, I would lean toward the former. The reason for this is that it has been documented how difficult it is for horses to ship from Dubai and then compete well in the United States. This horse is very young to make such a back and forth trip. To make such a trip early in his 3-year-old year and then come back to qualify and run well in the Derby would be a feat of historical proportions. I feel the connections have chosen to earn as much money as they can when the distances are shorter than take the risk he will succumb to a longer distance.
Last week had the first prep race of 2021, the LeCompte, at the Fairgrounds in New Orleans. The big favorite was Mandaloun who had won his first two career starts. Another horse getting attention was the Steve Asmussen trained Midnight Bourbon. I thought that since the announcement had been made about Jackie’s Warrior running in Saudi Arabia it might signify that the barn had enough confidence in Midnight Bourbon being a quality Derby horse.
Midnight Bourbon did not disappoint running a very impressive race to win going away. Mandaloun was edged out for second and had to settle for third. While this was only the first of three expected Louisiana races between these two horses, it did show that both of these appear to be Derby quality horses. This is something new for the Louisiana prep races as those horses who wintered in New Orleans have not factored much in recent Derbies.
This is yet one more reason I think this crop of 3-year-olds is exceptionally strong.
The filly prep race, the Silverbulletday, was won in a mild upset by Charlie’s Penny. She went off as the 4th choice in the field of 9. I really question her ability to be a factor once the races get longer– and she will find that getting another 200 yards in the Oaks might be a problem. Still, you can’t take this win away from her.
Qualifying points really do not come into consideration with the fillies as much as they do the boys as the entrants for the Kentucky Oaks is rarely more than the maximum field size of 14. Therefore, my focus on the fillies of this crop have been more on quality than quantity. While the boys class appears to be outstanding, I do not think this filly crop is very deep in talent.
That was the only prep race held last week. While the cold weather and Covid have forced many of us to stay in our home, look at the bright side: we have a Derby prep race every weekend until May’s historic “Run for the Roses”.