The Kentucky Derby graded earnings system is gone, thank goodness. No more one-time 2-year-old hotshots getting a free pass and riding the gravy train all the way to Louisville. Those lucrative 2-year-old races no longer will get you a starting berth in the Derby, although we feel some tweaking is needed to separate the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Champagne, and FrontRunner from the other 10-point juvenile races. Perhaps 20 points for those three stakes would serve the system better. They still produce the marquee names on the Derby trail until they either prove themselves unworthy or others come along to replace them.
Another possible change would be an upgrade to 20 points for the Holy Bull and Robert Lewis Stakes, which has attracted top horses the past two years. But those are suggestions to ponder for the future.
What is most fascinating about the new point system is that we really don’t know how many points it’s going to take to assure a spot in the field. Churchill Downs is estimating around 40, with a group tied at 30 fighting for the final spots, which will be decided by earnings in non-restricted stakes. Those estimations are based on how it would have played out last year had the point system been implemented, and extensive research over the past several years.
While we as prognosticators, speculators, and fans can just sit back and enjoy the show and deal with everything as it develops, the trainers are going to have to do a great deal of adjusting on the fly, while figuring out when to call last-minute audibles and leaving themselves room at the back end in case their original plans don’t materialize as hoped.
You would think the new points system would encourage trainers to run their horses three times instead of two, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Therefore, many trainers will be relying heavily on their horse’s performance in the Second Level stakes, worth 100 points to the winner.
Although there is always the danger of good horses, such as Shanghai Bobby, Violence, Normandy Invasion and others with two scheduled starts encountering an unforeseen roadblock along the way, the result of a terrible start or bad trip in their final race, there is the satisfaction of knowing that the Derby field will be comprised of horses who are all in top form, making the race even more competitive than in past years. This year could turn out to be a learning experience for trainers who took the conservative route and left themselves with no back-up plan, and in the end failed to get in.
One of the reasons we don’t have Triple Crown winners anymore is that the Derby is so much deeper and more competitive than it used to be back in the 60s and 70s when anyone could run in the race and often did, from cheap claimers to bad allowance horses who were still eligible for nonwinners of two after 15- to 20-plus career starts. With the new point system, the Derby will be even more difficult to win, with basically the entire field coming off a top effort.
As for horses like Violence, Normandy Invasion, Uncaptured, Overanalyze and other top-class 2-year-olds scheduled to make their two starts in a 50-point race and 100-point race, if they can’t earn more than 20 points in those two races to go along with their 2-year-old points, perhaps they’re just not good enough or ready to tackle the Derby. They can’t hang their hat on the Remsen or Kentucky Jockey Club or CashCall Futurity. They can only hope if they are on the bubble, those 10 points will provide that extra little push to get in the race.
Also, as much as we all feel badly for Hawthorne having the Illinois Derby omitted completely from the qualifying stakes list, it will force trainers to run their horses against the top contenders in their final prep instead of using the much easier Illinois Derby as a backdoor entrance into the Derby, as in past years. Hawthorne recently upped the purse of the race, and if they can establish it as a legitimate 50-point race and perhaps eventually a 100-point race by attracting better quality horses then they will have a good chance of becoming a serious Derby prep. In the meantime, the omission of the Illinois Derby, as bad as it is for Hawthorne, will weed out horses who used to get in the Derby, even though they didn’t measure up against the real contenders.
The bottom line is that the Derby trail is going to be a fascinating, entertaining, thought-provoking journey.
Pedigree strikes it rich
It looks as if Steve Asmussen has himself a potential Derby trail horse in Proud Strike, who demolished a maiden field at Fair Grounds going 1 1/16 miles, despite having to go four-wide into the first turn after breaking from the 10-post, rallying three-wide around the far turn, and racing a bit greenly in the stretch, ducking in toward the rail.
Brian Hernandez hit him left-handed after turning for home, then switched to a right-handed whip and kept hitting him right-handed even as he was bearing in. Once he got to the rail, he ran perfectly straight, displaying a smooth, efficient stride, and kept widening his margin, gliding past the wire 7 1/2 lengths in front.
Not only was this colt extremely impressive, even with questionable competition, the first five generations of his female family reads like a Who’s Who of Blue Hen producers and racing champions. You would be hard-pressed to find a greater collection of racing and breeding legends in a single female family.
Gallorette – One of the greatest fillies of all time, she defeating colts 14 times, including victories in the Met Mile, Whitney, Brooklyn, and Carter, while competing against the likes of Stymie, Armed, and Assault. Dam of Irish St. Leger winner White Gloves II.
Flower Bowl – Foundation mare for Darby Dan Farm. Dam of Graustark, champion sire His Majesty, and champion 3-year-old filly Bowl of Flowers.
Misty Morn – Champion 3-year-old filly and Handicap Filly and Mare, Broodmare of the Year and dam of champions Bold Lad and Successor.
Grey Flight – Phipps family foundation mare, dam of nine stakes winners, including What a Pleasure and Misty Morn.
Natalma – Dam of Northern Dancer and three other stakes winners, as well as four stakes-placed horses. Granddam of legendary international sire Danehill and undefeated 2-year-old champion filly La Prevoyante, who finished the year an amazing 12-for-12.
Flaming Page – Won the Queen’s Plate and Canadian Oaks and was second in the Kentucky Oaks. Dam of England’s last Triple Crown winner, the great Nijinsky II and top-class producer Fleur.
Fleur – Dam of English and Irish Derby winner The Minstrel and three other stakes winners, including French group winner and top sire Far North.
Minstrella – Three-time group I winner in Europe and champion 2-year-old filly in Ireland. Dam of multiple graded stakes winner Colonial Minstrel. Granddam of Jim Dandy winner A Little Warm
Flight Dancer – Dam of Misty Gallore, winner of eight stakes, and European champion Minstrella. Granddam of top sire Silver Ghost, and great granddam of Horse of the Year and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Saint Liam.
Oh, yes, and Proud Strike’s sire is Smart Strike and his broodmare sire is Pleasant Colony, in case you were wondering about his distance capabilities. This is pretty much the history of Thoroughbred racing and breeding in North America, wrapped up in one female family.
Now, a 1 1/16-mile maiden race at Fair Grounds that was originally scheduled for the grass (he was entered main track only) is a far cry from becoming a legitimate contender on the Derby trail, but it sure is a start, and if he can get over the next hump, facing better quality horses, then you have to regard him as a serious horse. Until then, we can just drool over his pedigree.
This was his third career start, but it must be noted that the only two horses to finish in front him were Bradester, who came back to win an allowance race at Gulfstream, and the brilliant and highly regarded Titletown Five, who was coming off a neck defeat to Violence.
New faces of the week
Treasury Bill -- This Ron Ellis-trained colt, owned by Gary and Mary West of Flashback and Power Broker fame, looked awesome breaking his maiden going 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita, in which he came from far back with a powerful stretch run to win by 1 1/4 lengths while still under wraps. He may have the best stamina pedigree of any horse on the Derby trail this year, which makes his sprint score all the more impressive. Watch out for this one.
Transparent – Well-bred Darley colt finally put it all together and broke his maiden going 1 1/16 miles by almost six lengths at Aqueduct, despite being wiped out on the backstretch and carried out past the middle of the track.. Son of Bernardini had previously run second to the exciting Revolutionary.
Cerro – Another find for Team Valor, this former Italian-trained son of Mr. Greeley looked good wiring his field by 2 1/2 lengths in a 1 1/8-mile allowance race at Gulfstream, running a full second faster than Orb in the second division. Strong female family and should have no problem getting classic distances.
Orb – Shug McGaughey colt by Malibu Moon, owned by Stuart Janney III and the Phipps family, scored his second straight win in the second division of the nine-furlong allowance, winning by a length. He has a victory over Revolutionary and was third, beaten 1 1/4 lengths, by Violence.
Tiz a Minister – After eight starts on grass and synthetic, he made his dirt debut in the California Breeders Champion Stakes and came from the clouds with a spectacular late run to defeat the odds-on favorite Omega Star, who ran an excellent race himself.