When Churchill Downs changed its qualifying standards for the Kentucky Derby (G1) ahead of the 2013 edition of the race from graded stakes earnings to points earned in its designated Road to the Kentucky Derby series races, this is the type of season those racing executives surely imagined.
While before the points system there were years where good horses would just get into the field or just get squeezed out, the points series is easier to follow. (Adding 20+20 is a lot easier than trying to remember to carry the '1' when you're adding $27,000 to $24,000 in graded stakes earnings.)
The points race relative to who gets in, who is left out, and the strategy employed by connections in trying to crack the field is especially interesting this year. With television coverage of the final two races April 13, the Stonestreet Lexington Stakes (G3) on TVG and the Arkansas Derby (G1) on NBC Sports Network, the culmination should make for compelling storylines.
Consider some of the oddities in this year's points race:
• Arkansas Derby morning-line favorite Improbable, who is ranked fifth in the most recent NTRA Top 3-Year-Old Poll, needs at least a third-place finish--possibly a finish in the top two--to ensure a Kentucky Derby spot.
• Second choice in the Arkansas Derby and fourth in the NTRA poll, Omaha Beach needs at least a top-four finish Saturday to secure a Derby slot.
•While horses like Improbable and Country House will look to land a Derby spot through the 100-40-20-10 points offered to the top four finishers of the Arkansas Derby, multiple graded stakes-placed Sueno and Sunland Park Derby (G3) runner-up Anothertwistafate will take more of an all-or-nothing approach as they'll need a win in the Lexington (20-8-4-2) to ensure a place in the Churchill gate.
• A top-two Arkansas Derby finish by horses out of the top 20--or even horses without any points in the series--could put other 3-year-olds on the outside looking in for the Derby, or force connections to decide whether they want to prepare for the Derby and see if any defections open a spot.
Barring defections, a new standard in terms of points required to qualify for one of the 20 starting spots in the Kentucky Derby will be established. Currently, the final spot is held by Omaha Beach at 37.5 points, which is already ahead of the previous standard for the final spot set in 2016 with the 32 points earned by Mo Tom, who finished eighth in the Louisville classic.
One reason the points standard has increased is because a dozen horses have won races that awarded 37.5 points or more to the winner (the 37.5 points went to the winners of the split grade 2 Rebel Stakes). Only Tacitus has won two of these races, picking up 50 for his victory in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2) and 100 for his score in the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G2).
Another reason for the increased standard is this year's North American points race will award, at most, 19 spots instead of 20. This is because one spot is already reserved for Master Fencer (JPN) through the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby.
Some good news for Derby bubble horses? After the April 11 Woodford Reserve Cardinal conditions stakes result, it appears unlikely a horse will take advantage of a spot earned through the European Road to the Derby--although that's still a possibility.
Maybe it's not quite the excitement of a college basketball bubble team hearing its name announced for an NCAA Tournament bid, but this year's points race is pretty compelling.