Because a pair of international races could generate several Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) starters, this weekend's points races will be the most important weekend in determining where this year's Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifying points bubble will fall.
As many as three horses based outside of North America could secure Derby spots this weekend, and a fourth horse, who likely would fall on the bubble, also is a possibility.
On March 30, Phoenix Thoroughbreds' Gronkowski locked up the European Road to the Kentucky Derby points race and his connections plan to make the trip to Louisville. That locks down one spot for the Kentucky Derby, meaning the main points race will award just 19 spots.
And those 19 spots could be further reduced depending on what happens Saturday as the Burradon was just the lead-up to the season's most important race in terms of this year's Derby points race: the UAE Derby Sponsored by Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group (G2). The reason this 170-point race in the desert is bigger than any points race in the United States is that it could bring a number of international runners into the field, which essentially would reduce the number of slots available to U.S.-based runners.
As always the winner of the UAE Derby will secure a spot in the Kentucky Derby. The UAE Derby winner isn't always sent to Kentucky but many of this year's top contenders in Meydan intend to go forward to Kentucky.
A wrinkle in the UAE Derby this year is the presence of Japan-based Ruggero, who could earn a trip to Kentucky without winning in Dubai. That's because the connections of Ruggero have first-call in the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby points race. (Should they decline that spot, Taiki Ferveur (JPN), who also is running in the UAE Derby, would be next in line.)
And there's one more possibility, as reported by Bob Kieckhefer: Irish-based super trainer Aidan O'Brien has three horses entered in the UAE Derby--Kentucky-breds Mendelssohn, Seahenge, and Threeandfourpence--and said he could send more than one of them to Louisville.
So Gronkowski has nailed down the European Road to the Derby slot. Now imagine this scenario at Meydan: Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1T) winner Mendelssohn wins the UAE Derby, followed closely by a stablemate, and then Ruggero. Under this scenario, if O'Brien opts to send both his horses and the connections of Ruggero use their Japan Road to the Derby points to send him, suddenly three Derby spots are gone to international runners and Seahenge or Threeandfourpence, with 40 points in this scenario, could potentially take a fourth.
Last year's Derby, which saw just one international starter in Thunder Snow, required 30 points in the Main Road to the Derby to make the field, based on the 20th ranked horse to enter. In 2016, also with one international starter, the cut-off was 32 points. Previous years would be 2015, 22; 2014, 20; 2013, 10.