(Originally published in the January 28, 2012 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
By Evan Hammonds
While we realize it’s still only January and foaling season has just gotten underway, it’s hard not to turn our attention to daydreaming about the first Saturday in May. Just getting a horse to the backside of Churchill Downs for a shot at the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) can be an arduous journey fraught with peril.
Many of the tried-and-true methods, theories, and pathways to get to Louisville have been debunked in the past several years. The last four horses to wear the roses all had but two starts under their belts at 3—unheard of a decade ago. Mine That Bird, the Derby winner in 2009, prepped at Sunland Park in New Mexico; Animal Kingdom, last year’s victor, made his dirt debut under the Twin Spires.
While there is no conspiracy theory out there just yet, several racetracks and their management have attempted to make a method of the madness and put together something novel this century: their own progressive series of preps to transition newly turned 3-year-olds into potential Derby and Triple Crown candidates.
At Santa Anita, the Sham Stakes (gr. III), run at 11⁄8 miles in early March as recently as two years ago—the week before the 11⁄16-mile San Felipe Stakes (gr. II)—was moved to Jan. 7 this year and cut back to a mile. That gives Southern California horsemen the mile Sham to get to the 11⁄16-mile Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) Feb. 4 or the March 10 San Felipe, before stretching out to the nine-furlong Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) April 7.
At Gulfstream Park a new finish line was put in to accommodate races at 11⁄16 miles, a distance not contested at the Hallandale, Fla., track since it was rebuilt in 2006. That’s opened up a host of options for horsemen and allows for a nice progression from the one-mile Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III) Jan. 29 to the 11⁄16-mile Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) Feb. 26 to the 11⁄8-mile Florida Derby (gr. I) March 31. From 2006-11, all two-turn races were at nine furlongs.
“The majority of horsemen wanted two-turn races, but at this time of the year, some of the horses are ready for mile and an eighth races, some are not,” said Dan Bork, Gulfstream Park’s racing secretary. “With this new progression of 3-year-old races, it will be a huge advantage for us.”
Also, the number of maiden and allowance races that Gulfstream can offer at 11⁄16 miles helps young 3-year-olds transition smoothly to longer distances.
New York’s series to the classics has seen the most impressive overhaul. Flush with funds from the new Resorts World Casino at Aqueduct, New York Racing Association management got aggressive. They bumped the pot of the Jan. 7, one mile and 70-yard Count Fleet Stakes from $65,000 to $150,000, moved the 11⁄16-mile Withers Stakes (gr. III) to Feb. 4 while canning the ungraded Whirlaway Stakes, and sweetened the purse of the 11⁄16-mile Gotham Stakes (gr. III) to $400,000…all of which leads to the 11⁄8-mile Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I) April 7.
“We tried to make this a viable option for horsemen to use in the wintertime,” said Andrew Byrnes, NYRA’s stakes coordinator. “With the Withers, we had the grade attached to it, so we thought we’d add some money and see what happens.”
With graded earnings the holy grail for entry to the Kentucky Derby, New York’s new lineup figures to be formidable, weather permitting.
“I think it will be well-received—trainers have to look at it now,” Byrnes said. “It’s the money and the grade…it’ll get those guys’ attention.”
It’s got our attention. Let the journey begin.
Positive Earnings Projection
With the commercial industry brimming with optimism from the positive fall and winter sales, U.S. racehorse owners got their own good news in 2011. The average North American earnings per runner rose 7.3% to $17,506.
The average earnings increase is the first since 2008 and the average itself is now higher than it was in 2007 before this statistic began to slide with the rest of the economy. Gross purses began falling in 2008 because the economy soured and fewer people had money to wager on Thoroughbred races. While many tracks derive purse money from gaming machines, handle is still the primary source.
Total earnings in 2011 was more than $1.13 billion, up a slight 1.7% from 2010, according to The Jockey Club. Total runners, however, dropped 5.3% to 64,625. The earnings potential for owners should be good for the next couple of years, considering the foal crop declined another 10% between 2010 and 2011 while purses are growing in gaming-fueled states like New York and Pennsylvania.