Last year’s initial hand-wringing over the new Kentucky Derby points system proved baseless. Once the dust cleared and the field was set, the threshold at the bottom was so low that many went into this 2014 run up to the Triple Crown thinking the leader board would be a non-issue.
In this the second year under the system, the angst many expected 12 months prior has now shown up in a big way among some of the top contenders. With Saturday’s Grade I Toyota Blue Grass and Grade I Arkansas Derby representing the final round of major prep races, more than one horse that once vied for leadership of the division will be at the mercy of the weekend’s results when it comes to their May 3 fate.
Giant Finish and his 10 points were enough to get into the Kentucky Derby starting gate for 2013, but those who thought they could take the two-prep route without stress now find themselves on a tenuous bubble.
Cairo Prince, the Holy Bull Stakes winner who many thought could be the Derby favorite down the line, is now sitting in the 17th spot with 24 points after finishing fourth in the Grade I Florida Derby.
Similarly, Robert B. Lewis Stakes winner Candy Boy is one spot ahead of Cairo Prince with 30 points after finishing a non-threatening third in the Santa Anita Derby.
Social Inclusion, who went off as the Grade I Wood Memorial favorite, is on the outside looking in the 21st position while Grade I winner Strong Mandate has to finish in the top two in the Arkansas Derby if he is to crack the top 20.
Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Cairo Prince, has been an outspoken critic about the current points system, especially lamenting the fact that 2-year-old races like the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile only offer 10 points to the winner.
There is something to be said, however, about having a horse who is improving rather than regressing heading into the biggest test of its career. And those who took the risk schedule-wise with only two preps may be in for a harsh lesson after leaving even talented charges with no wiggle room for an off outing.
“You not only have to get the points, you need to run well enough to show that you belong,” said trainer Mark Casse, who will send out Coastline in the Blue Grass Stakes and Conquest Titan (with nine points) in the Arkansas Derby. “There are some who rise to the occasion and some who fall. It really doesn’t matter who was good in November, December or January. It matters who’s good in April and May. As I’ve gotten older, and over the years, I’ve learned not to get all worked up over that kind of stuff.”
THE DERBY DOZEN
1. California Chrome: An emphatic and deserving divisional leader following his Grade I Santa Anita Derby triumph last Saturday. Of the many scary good moments in that run, perhaps the most telling was that jockey Victor Espinoza barely flinched in the saddle and the son of Lucky Pulpit opened up on rivals on his own accord. And when he came to a stop and posed on the backstretch, he barely looked like he had taken a deep breath. Anything can happen in the Derby: He could draw the No. 1 post. He could hate the Churchill surface. But he’s going to be the one with the big rosy target on his back.
2. Constitution: Apollo curse notwithstanding, this horse has behaved like one with the intangibles needed to overcome his lack of 2-year-old form. He has literally grown up in a hurry, developing into a gorgeous physical specimen with the improving professionalism to go with it. California Chrome is your clear leader, but who knows what this Tapit colt is capable of talent-wise?
3. Samraat: Loved him even more after his runner-up finish in the Wood Memorial than after his victories in the Gotham and Withers Stakes. Trainer Rick Violette got exactly what he wanted out of the Wood: an ‘A’ game run without having to use up everything in the tank.
4. Hoppertunity: He wasn’t going to beat California Chrome, but again, he needed the seasoning as much as anything at this stage. He only had one work between his Rebel Stakes win and the Santa Anita Derby, so trainer Bob Baffert basically got a nice tightener into him in the form of a race. Along with Constitution, Hoppertunity could seriously threaten the whole Apollo hex this year.
5. Wicked Strong: First and foremost, it’s a welcome sight to see trainer Jimmy Jerkens with a major Kentucky Derby contender. The subsequent glow of California Chrome’s Santa Anita Derby eclipsed a little the way Wicked Strong hit the afterburners in the lane of the Wood Memorial. Jerkens said the son of Hard Spun was “tired but good” the day after and that he’d likely do the majority of his training at Belmont leading up to May 3.
6. Wildcat Red: Not sure he can last for 10 furlongs but still believe he’s the one they’ll have to go through at the quarter pole in the Kentucky Derby. The Jose Garoffalotrained colt is slated to return to the work tab at Gulfstream on April 20 and will breeze at Churchill on April 27. “He’s doing great. He came out of (the Florida Derby) great,” Garoffalo said.
7. Tapiture: Will have Joel Rosario up for his Arkansas Derby run Saturday. Has fired every time he’s gotten a remotely clean trip and he’s another that is in good enough shape points-wise that he doesn’t need to get on his belly in his final prep.
8. General a Rod: He could be a wildcard in terms of the Kentucky Derby pace scenario if he stays as involved early as he has been. He does have form over the Churchill Downs track as well, having run second to Conquest Titan there last Nov. 30.
9. Intense Holiday: Will be one to especially keep an eye on as far as how he works and behaves over the Churchill Downs track leading up to the Kentucky Derby after the way he was cross-firing in the stretch of the Louisiana Derby.
10. Candy Boy: With only 30 points on the Kentucky Derby points standings, will be sweating things out along with the connections of Cairo Prince to see how many horses potentially leap frog him this weekend. He ran like a horse who needed a race in the Santa Anita Derby, but still would have liked to have seen more finish from a runner that is supposed to relish more distance.
11. Cairo Prince: The defection of both Albano and Toast of New York from the Kentucky Derby trail aids his cause, but he will be passed in the standings by the top two in the Blue Grass Stakes and at least one other out of the Arkansas Derby.
12. Vicar’s in Trouble: Needs to show he can settle if he has any hope of lasting the ¼-miles in the Kentucky Derby, especially given the amount of classy front-runners that will likely be in play.
THE NEXT DOZEN
Social Inclusion, Ring Weekend, Chitu, We Miss Artie, Bobby’s Kitten, Midnight Hawk, Strong Mandate, Conquest Titan, Vinceremos, Ride On Curlin, Commanding Curve, Bayern.