And Then There Were Three

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Metaboss wins the El Camino Real Derby.
Photo: Shane Micheli/Vassar Photography

The victory by Metaboss in the $200,000 El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) Feb. 14 on the Tapeta Footings surface at Golden Gate Fields marked the second of just three Road to the Kentucky Derby races that will be contested on synthetic surfaces this year.

The three points races on synthetic surfaces for this year's Derby is down from eight offered for last year's surface.

The Road to the Kentucky Derby races, which award top finishers points used to determine the Derby field should more than 20 horses enter, offered just one juvenile race on a synthetic surface for this year's Derby: the Grey Stakes (Can-II) won by International Star at Woodbine. The highest-point race on a synthetic surface will be the Spiral Stakes March 21 at Turfway Park, which offers 50 points to the winner, 20 to second, 10 to third, and 5 to fourth.

The Road to the Kentucky Derby races for the 2014 Derby included five other races contested on synthetic surfaces. Those races will be contested on dirt surfaces for this year's series.

The CashCall Futurity had been offered on the synthetic surface at Hollywood Park, but that track closed after its 2013 fall meeting. The race was moved to the dirt surface at Los Alamitos in 2014. The final edition of the race at Hollywood was won by Shared Belief, who would be named champion 2-year-old male; while Dortmund won the first edition of this race contested at Los Alamitos.

Changing from Tapeta Footings to dirt this year is Meydan, which offers the United Arab Emirates Derby Sponsored by the Saeed & Mohammed al Nab (UAE-II). Last year's race on the synthetic surface was won by Toast of New York, who would close out the year with a runner-up finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I). This year's UAE Derby is scheduled March 28.

The track accounting for the other three races moving from synthetic, in this case Polytrack, back to dirt is Keeneland. The Lexington track offers the Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) for 2-year-olds, the big points of the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), and the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. III), which is billed as a last-chance to make the Derby type race but hasn't been used as such under the current points system.

The 2013 Breeders' Futurity was won by We Miss Artie while the return to dirt in the fall saw Carpe Diem claim top honors and secure 10 points toward this year's Derby. The final Blue Grass on the Polytrack was won by Dance With Fate, who would finish sixth in the Derby. This year's Blue Grass is set for April 4.

Carpe Diem wins the Breeders' Futurity.
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
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Both the UAE Derby and the Blue Grass are top points races that offer 100 points to the winner, followed by 40-20-10 for other top placers. This year there are no races at this points level offered on synthetic surfaces.

The two Lexington winners to earn points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby, Mr Speaker last year and Winning Cause in 2013, did not race in the Derby--or any of the Triple Crown races. With the return to dirt and a move to three weeks out from the Derby, I suspect we could see a few more horsemen consider the Lexington for horses who need a few more points to ensure themselves a spot in the Derby field.

Still, it's only a 10-4-2-1 race, so the opportunity is limited to horses with enough points to already be close to making the field. I think with the move to dirt and the timing of this race, Churchill Downs should consider bumping up the Lexington's points to perhaps its own unique tier of something like 25-10-5-2 to give the winner a pretty good chance of making the field.

For that matter the Illinois Derby (gr. II) at Hawthorne Race Course, still ignored by Churchill Downs' point system, could be a good fit in this tier as well.

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