Money can buy a whole lot of things — not the least of which is a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.
Considering graded stakes earnings are used to determine the field for the first leg of the Triple Crown when more than 20 horses enter, prep races offering lofty purses are among the most sought-after prizes, even if they're not Grade I.
Since it was given a Grade III ranking in 2006, the $1 million Delta Jackpot Stakes for 2-year-olds has seemingly offered a guaranteed Derby slot as its first-place prize money automatically puts its winner near the head of the earnings list.
That's the case this year with Winchell Thoroughbreds' Sabercat, who will make his first start since capturing the 11⁄16-mile Delta Jackpot last November when he faces 12 foes in Saturday's Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. With $600,000 in graded earnings to his credit, the son of Bluegrass Cat can book a trip to Louisville even if he doesn't hit the board in any of his prep races.
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Unfortunately for Sabercat, money hasn't always translated into classic quality where past Delta Jackpot winners are concerned. Of the nine previous race winners since its inception in 2002, only Outta Here and Z Humor made it to the Kentucky Derby, finishing seventh and 14th, respectively. While others could have marched on regardless, some of their connections realized having the bankroll to get in didn't mean they should force the Derby on their horses at the risk of long-term success — just ask 2008 Jackpot winner Big Drama, who went on to become the 2010 champion sprinter.
Like the rest of his classmates, the goal for Sabercat is to peak seven weeks from now on May 5. Thus, a good effort in the Rebel — even if it is not a winning one — will be his objective Saturday.
As crucial as his bankroll is in determining his Derby fate, the most valuable thing Sabercat can ultimately provide his connections is the confidence that his talent — not his earnings — ranks him among the tops in his division.
The Derby Dozen
1. Union Rags: Had his first workout since his Fountain of Youth win last Saturday, covering 4 furlongs in :50.76 at Palm Meadows Training Center. Could face a large field in the Grade I Florida Derby on March 31, nixing any concern about him getting a soft path to the first Saturday in May.
2. El Padrino: Breezed 4 furlongs in :48.08 at Palm Meadows on Monday and remains under consideration for either the Florida Derby or the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds. Impressive as his pedigree is at first glance — by Pulpit out of a Giant's Causeway mare — digging further reveals even more class. Has Mr. Prospector on both the top and bottom of his pedigree and Chic Shirine, who produced El Padrino's dam Enchanted Rock, won the 1987 Grade I Ashland Stakes.
3. Creative Cause: Solidified his place as a leading Derby contender with his win over Bodemeister in the San Felipe Stakes last weekend. Jockey Joel Rosario said the son of Giant's Causeway still acted green in the lane and was a little late in switching leads. That just goes to prove he hasn't hit the ceiling yet in his development. The one to beat in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 7.
4. Hansen: Is slated to work Saturday at Churchill's Trackside training center in preparation for the Grade I Wood Memorial on April 7. Much has been made of how the horses he beat in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile continue to flatter him. Of the 13 horses who ran in the 2011 Juvenile, six have already come back to win graded stakes this year. Not even the vaunted Juvenile class of 2006 — headed by future Derby winner Street Sense — could claim that at this point.
5. Gemologist: It may have been only a one-mile allowance race, but the son of Tiznow had fans buzzing after winning his season debut at Gulfstream Park on Friday by 7 lengths. Gemologist was able to relax on the front end and barely appeared to be blowing after putting away Grade I winner Currency Swap in what was essentially a paid workout. Wish that effort had come in a stakes as the unbeaten colt was originally being pointed to the Rebel, but that was as good an effort as you'd want to see in his first start since taking the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes on Nov. 26. Like El Padrino, he's also ridden by Javier Castellano so Castellano may have another decision on his hands in the coming weeks. Trainer Todd Pletcher said Friday that Gemologist's next start will be "either April 7 or April 14, and we'll decide whether it will be better to have four weeks or three weeks to the (Kentucky) Derby."
6. Alpha: Worked 5 furlongs in 1:01.21 at Palm Meadows last Saturday as trainer Kiaran McLaughlin debates between the Florida Derby or Wood Memorial. One stat to ponder is that the last three winners of the Wood Memorial (Toby's Corner, Eskendereya and I Want Revenge) haven't even made it to the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby.
7. I'll Have Another: After working the son of Flower Ally between races at Santa Anita the week before, trainer Doug O'Neill had him working out again at Hollywood Park this week, covering one mile in 1:42.60 on March 12 in preparation for the Santa Anita Derby.
8. Mark Valeski: Trainer Larry Jones said that on Tuesday he'll have his first work since his runner-up finish in the Risen Star in late February. If you're looking for a sentimental angle, his broodmare sire, Fortunate Prospect, was euthanized at the age of 31 on March 15 at Old Friends retirement facility.
9. Bodemeister: Got thrown into the fire in the San Felipe off his maiden win and was three-quarters of a length from pulling it off. Drifted out slightly in the stretch so, again, there is still learning to be done. But he's already handled his first step up in class like a pro.
10. Prospective: The addition of blinkers worked in his Tampa Bay Derby win as he was a much more aggressive horse — in a good way — than during his second-place finish in the Sam F. Davis. This hard-knocking son of Malibu Moon has already made seven starts, including three this year, with his only off-the-board effort coming when he was last in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. May be pointed toward the Grade I Wood Memorial.
11. Dullahan: Got what he needed out of his runner-up finish to Howe Great in the Palm Beach Stakes last Sunday, finishing up very well over a speed-favoring turf course in his first start since the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. "The winner possessed another gear. I'll possess that gear next time," jockey Kent Desormeaux said after the race. The Grade I Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 14 is next.
12. Howe Great: He may prove to be an exceptional grass horse, but the son of Hat Trick will deserve strong Kentucky Derby consideration if he heads to the Blue Grass Stakes and handles the Polytrack well. Trainer Graham Motion continues to marvel at how easy this colt seems to make things look in his races and his grandsire, Sunday Silence, was one of the great classic performers of his time.
The next dozen: Sabercat, News Pending, Take Charge Indy, Secret Circle, Liaison, My Adonis, Daddy Nose Best, Golden Ticket, Midnight Transfer, Went the Day Well, Castaway, Rousing Sermon.
Off the trail: Fed Biz, Motor City.