Haskin's Derby Trail: Points of No Return

It’s starting to get hairy, folks. If there is one thing we’ve learned from the new points system, it’s that you’re playing with fire by skipping the 50-point races and going straight from the wee little 10-pointers to the big, bad 100-pointers.

By putting all your eggs in the one proverbial basket, in many cases having to finish first or second to secure a spot in the Derby, you better hope a) you don’t run into a monster like Verrazano, b) you don’t draw a terrible post, c) you don’t have a nightmare trip and get stopped at a crucial point in the race, and c) you don’t run your eyeballs out only to get beat two noses. The new-look Kentucky Derby doesn’t accept excuses.

It is obvious that many trainers are learning as they go along, but at what price? Or maybe they’re not learning. We won’t know until next year when they map out their Derby plans.

At this point, we really can’t say what the cutoff will be. Churchill Downs is estimating it to be about 30 points. That 30-point line, or whatever the line may be, could be the Derby trail’s 38th parallel. On one side is the comfort and safety of knowing you likely will be in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. But on the other side is enemy territory -- the cold, unfriendly environs of missed opportunity and second-guessing.

Getting through the 50-point obstacle unscathed and assured a spot in the Derby are Verrazano, Orb, Vyjack, Hear the Ghost, and probably Flashback. Again, that is using 30 points as the cutoff. It could be more or it could be less.

So, we already have a strong nucleus, as small as it might be. But what about those who passed the 50 pointers and headed straight to the major preps? It’s scary to think about it, but big-name horses Itsmyluckyday, Revolutionary, and Normandy Invasion, who are ranked very high on most lists (especially the first two), basically have to finish first or second in their respective final preps to secure a spot in the Derby. A third for Itsmyluckyday or Revolutionary would put them right on the bubble at 30 points. And then it’s finger-crossing time.

Although it’s not likely to happen, Todd Pletcher, with Violence already gone and Verrazano in the Derby, could be in danger of losing three more horses if Revolutionary, Palace Malice, and Overanalyze fail to finish in the top two in their final preps. Even last year’s 2-year-old champion, Shanghai Bobby, is not yet guaranteed a spot with one race left. Again, most of those horses should run well enough to qualify, but you can never take anything for granted in racing, and the new points system is very unforgiving if you should make even the slightest mistake.

That is the nature of the new beast that has been created, which in the long run will cull out the weak. The feeling here is that the vast majority of pretenders will be weeded out, and the field assembled will be deeper than any we’ve ever seen, consisting of nothing but horses who are in top form. It is true that, as Wayne Lukas says, the point system does not reward body of work, but the object of trainers with top-class 3-year-olds has always been to have them peaking in April and May. And with the new system, they had better figure out how to accomplish that. No more hot-shot 2-year-olds or early 3-year-olds coasting through March and April, knowing they’re already in the Derby.

There are a number of promising, but late-developing 3-year-olds who already are down to one shot to get in the Derby. If they finish first or second in their 100-point prep, they get in at the last minute, while keeping more experienced horses out. If they don’t, it’s on to Baltimore or New York. These new faces include Treasury Bill, Code West, Rydilluc, Departing, Shakin It Up, Elnaawi, Ground Transport, Mr. Palmer, War Academy, and My Lute to name a few.

For the trainers who skipped the 50-point races, some will second-guess their decision, while others more philosophical will let fate dictate whether they get in the Derby or not. They took what they thought was the best course of action and let it go at that. Still others who missed out in the final prep and are desperate to get in the Derby, might try to sneak in the Lexington Stakes or Derby Trial to get enough points to put them over the top.

So, as the 100-point races approach, it’s now or never. Do or die. It’s time for sweating bullets. You have put all your eggs in one basket and are skating on thin ice and playing with fire. On race day, you will be as nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. If you’re waiting for your ship to come in, but that ship has sailed, remember, you reap what you sow. If, in the end, you get caught with your pants down and miss by a hair, take it like a man and lick your wounds. No use crying over spilled milk; there’s always next year. Remember, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.   

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