Spiral Stakes Provides Important Road to Kentucky Derby Option

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Of the dozen horses entered in the $500,000 JACK Cincinnati Casino Spiral Stakes (G3) March 25 on the Polytrack at Turfway Park, nine had never won a race on dirt.

That group included winner Fast and Accurate, who entered off a maiden-claiming race win at Turfway Park and a win in a turf sprint stakes race at Gulfstream Park. After securing his third win in a row in the Spiral, and securing 50 qualifying points to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1), owner Kendall Hansen, who picked up a minority partner in Skychai Racing after the Spiral win, plans to supplement the son of Hansen to the Kentucky Derby.

In Fast and Accurate’s lone start on dirt, an October 2016 maiden special weight race at Parx Racing, he finished fifth. Is he a horse who doesn’t like dirt or a horse who had not yet hit his stride—after all he finished second in his maiden debut and fourth in a stakes in his first two starts, both on the synthetic surface at Presque Isle. Nothing like starting in the Derby to begin to find answers to some of these questions.

Fast and Accurate - Coady Photography

Because the Derby is conducted on dirt, some might find the Spiral an odd choice as a Derby points race (50-20-10-5) but it makes sense for Churchill Downs to keep the 1 1/8-mile Polytrack test as an option for connections who have a top turf or synthetic surface runner that they're interested in qualifying for the Derby without being forced to try dirt.

The large 20-horse Derby field allows Churchill to provide an avenue to the Louisville classic to a horse who has raced well on synthetic surfaces or turf.  

This fits Churchill’s approach of providing some different options for reaching the Derby. The UAE Derby Sponsored by the Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group (G2) at Meydan Racecourse offers international runners opportunity. This year runners in Japan were offered a separate qualifying avenue.

Churchill does not offer such an option for fillies. I think it would make sense to designate one or two filly races as a separate category—similar to the Japan points system—that would allow a filly a route to the Derby other than facing males.

"I think different horses need different spots and this time of year you don't always know where you belong and how your horse will respond," said owner Brad Anderson, who started Parlor in the Spiral. "When we started considering this race, I looked back and saw that Animal Kingdom won it before his Derby win. So it can come together that way."

Animal Kingdom won the 2011 Spiral, then claimed victory in the Kentucky Derby in his first dirt start. Hard Spun won a grade 3 race on dirt before winning the 2007 Spiral, then went on to earn placings in the Derby and Preakness Stakes (G1).

With Meydan, the Southern California tracks, and Keeneland all replacing their synthetic surfaces with dirt in recent years, the Spiral and El Camino Real Derby (G3) at Golden Gate Fields (10-4-2-1) are the lone remaining Derby points races conducted on synthetic. 

Keeping the points status for the Spiral (as well as grade 1 Longines Kentucky Oaks qualifying points for the grade 3 Bourbonette Oaks) also helps maintain interest in Turfway Park's biggest day of racing, which is important for the Kentucky circuit.

This year’s Spiral proved to be an on-track success as it looked like more than 10,000 fans turned out. The weather agreed with temperatures in the low 70s—always important for a March race in Northern Kentucky. Beyond that though, Turfway was ready for the crowd with a bevy of extra workers and volunteers who welcomed fans in the parking lot, at the entrance, and in the facility’s elevators.

Turfway officials are well aware of needs for an improved front side, but some first-rate customer service went a long way in delivering a big-event feel on the track’s biggest day; a day in which many first-time fans or once-a-year fans turn out.

The track also continues to present a first-rate draw for its signature race. The Spiral draw has been conducted the past few years during a lunch at JACK Cincinnati Casino, the race sponsor. JACK Entertainment, chaired by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, is the majority owner of Turfway and owns the Cincinnati casino.

A quick handicapping note out of the race ... Spiral runner-up Blueridge Traveler deserves extra credit as one of the few horses on the day's card to make a big closing move. The track appeared to be favoring horses on or near the lead. 

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