The next two Saturdays will fill the field for the Derby
Happy April Fools Day. We are now entering the deep end of the pool when it comes to Kentucky Derby prep races. Today, the Florida Derby will be contested at Gulfstream Park and the Louisiana Derby takes place at Fairgrounds in New Orleans. Both races are 1 1/8 miles and both offer 100 points to the winner, 40 for second, 20 for third, and 10 for fourth. As we know, the top 20 point earners punch their ticket to the Kentucky Derby on May 6 at Churchill Downs. After today, the remaining prep races are the Wood Memorial, the Arkansas Derby, the Bluegrass and Santa Anita. All of these races carry 100-40-20-10 point values. The Lexington Stakes takes place on April 15, but the race carries 10-4-2-1 for points and in the past, has served more as a Preakness primer.
Currently, the 20th horse in the standings is Cloud Computing with 20 points. Obviously, a first or second place in any of these big races will get a horse into the Derby. Moreover, many of the horses have already clinched their spots by virtue of their prep races before today and of course, next week and the week after. For some, these races serve as sharpeners, for others, desperation to qualifying for the Kentucky Derby.
Like it or not, the points system is a much better way of determining the starting field than the old graded stakes earnings formula. In those days, a horse could run in a low caliber Grade 3 stake race that had a $700,000 purse and make enough money to make the field. Now, most horses run at least two, if not three prep races. In Florida, Gulfstream Park offers the Holy Bull, Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby path. In New York, there is the Withers, Gotham, Wood Memorial route and Arkansas offers the Southwest, Rebel and Arkansas Derby. Santa Anita counters with the Sham, San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby with Fairgrounds offering the LeComte, the Risen Star and the Louisiana Derby.
Fairgrounds has a nice card on its Derby Day. In addition to the big race, there is the Fairgrounds Oaks, the Muniz Memorial on turf and the New Orleans Handicap. To me, the most intriguing race is the Handicap for $400,000. It features a good crop of older horses, all with more than decent track records. Breaking Lucky won the $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes in 2015 and is coming off a disappointing eighth place finish in the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream. Prior to that, the five year old was second to Gun Runner in the Clark Handicap over Thanksgiving at Churchill Downs. Other runners include Mo Tom, Noble Bird, International Star, Iron Fist, Hawaakom, Eagle, Aglimpseofgabby and Honorable Duty.
At Gulfstream, Florida Derby day features eight stakes races, six of which have purses of more than $200,000. The Florida Derby features 10 runners with Gunnevera the morning line favorite. The other stakes races include the Appleton, Orchid, Honey Fox, Pan American, and the Gulfstream Park Oaks.
Speaking of the Kentucky Oaks, the countdown to May 5 is reaching its conclusion. The top fillies in the standings are Farrell (70 points), Unique Bella (70), It Tiz Well (54), Ghalia (50), Abel Tasman (30) and Daddys Lil Darling (20). With Unique Bella out due to injury, the picture will come into focus over the next two weeks. Only Farrell is in action today and she headlines a field of six in the Fairgrounds Oaks.
Next week, there are three Oaks prep races. Keeneland offers the Ashland, Santa Anita has the Santa Anita Oaks, while Aqueduct features the Gazelle. On April 15, the Fantasy will be contested at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
This is a great time of the year and a great time of anticipation. Unlike past years, nobody is contending there is a superhorse, but that could figure itself out over the next two weeks. The horse I really loved was Mastery, who lived up to his name when he romped in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 11. Unfortunately, he suffered a leg fracture and will be sidelined indefinitely.
The factions will be in play as well. The Northeast faction will make a case for the Wood Memorial winner to win the Kentucky Derby while the west coast faction will trumpet the Santa Anita Derby winner. In Arkansas, Oaklawn supporters will tout the fact that American Pharoah (2015) and Smarty Jones (2004) used its path to greatness and Fairgrounds will find their angle as well.
For the record, the last Louisiana Derby winner to win the Kentucky Derby was Grindstone in 1996 with Jerry Bailey on board with D. Wayne Lukas the trainer. The last Wood Memorial winner to win the Run for the Roses was Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000. The last Florida Derby winner to win in Louisville was the Doug O’Neill trained Nyquist just last year and before that it was Orb in 2013. Since 2006, four Florida Derby winners have gone on win the Derby with Barbaro (2006) and Big Brown (2008) joining the aforementioned Orb and Nyquist. The Santa Anita Derby winners that conquered in Kentucky were California Chrome in 2014 and I’ll Have Another in 2012. Not only did those two win the Derby, they also won the Preakness before being stopped from Triple Crown immortality by injury (I’ll Have Another) and Tonalist (California Chrome).
Sit back and relax as the countdown to Churchill Downs begins in earnest. Enjoy the preps and prepare yourselves accordingly as the Derby is just 36 days away.
Until next time.