On the basis of his ranking in the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" points standings, the connections of Orb should be doing the least hand wringing leading up to Saturday's Grade I Florida Derby.
With his win in last month's Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes, Orb earned 50 points under the new system used to determine the field for the Kentucky Derby — an amount that figures to secure him a spot in the starting gate on May 4 regardless where he finishes against the likes of champion Shanghai Bobby and Holy Bull Stakes winner Itsmyluckyday in his final prep.
However, both Orb's trainer Shug McGaughey and co-owner/breeder Stuart Janney said this week that just because they can go on to the first leg of the Triple Crown doesn't mean they're going to if they don't see an effort that suggest a competitive run five weeks from now.
That desire to see proof their horse is truly prepared for the hardest 10-furlong test of its life is exactly the result the new system is designed to produce.
Now that points rather than graded stakes earnings are used to set the Kentucky Derby lineup should more than 20 horses enter, many connections are facing crunch time as we head into the final round of prep races over the next few weeks.
Saturday's Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, and UAE Derby are the first preps that will offer a total of 170 points, with 100 points awarded for first, 40 for second, 20 for third and 10 for fourth. Since some highly regarded contenders like Itsmyluckyday and Louisiana Derby morning-line favorite Revolutionary need to build on their totals to ensure they make the Kentucky Derby field, there is a fear that one bout of bad luck could keep a promising 3-year-old from getting a chance at the sport's top prize.
"I don't want any extenuating circumstances to come in the way of everybody's best race," said Eddie Plesa Jr., trainer of Itsmyluckyday. "I don't want anybody to have to come out of that race ... and say, 'This happened to me; that happened to me.'"
A driving force behind the installation of the new system was to emphasize recent form — a stat supported by the fact that since 1990, 18 Derby winners either won or finished second in their final preps. Thus, while horses like Itsmyluckyday and Revolutionary would be in better shape under the old system, as long as they stay on their feet and hit the board, reaching the Derby will likely be supported both in the standings and their own merit.
Making these young horses reprove themselves has opened up some spots for those on the upswing. Under the old system, Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up He's Had Enough would have been locked into the Derby field by earnings even though he hasn't been competitive in his three straight losses since. Instead, he has just six points and needs to be in the top two in Saturday's UAE Derby to have a chance.
The old system allowed those who might have had a big day as a 2-year-old to be part of the most heralded American classic even if they failed to provide subsequent proof they belonged.
But it has been those who have shown steady improvement and progression that history ultimately rewards. And no matter the system in place, it is that intangible that prevails.
The Derby Dozen
1. Itsmyluckyday: Plesa reports that the morning-line favorite for the Florida Derby is "just tearing down the barn." On paper, it's hard to see any outside the big three of this one, Orb and Shanghai Bobby ending up in front Saturday.
2. Verrazano: Will probably be your Kentucky Derby favorite if he wins the Grade I Wood Memorial next weekend in stylish fashion. Put in his first move last Sunday since winning the Tampa Bay Derby, covering 4 furlongs in: 49.79 working in company with Gulfstream Park Handicap winner Discreet Dancer at Palm Meadows. "You could say 'maintenance' except that the gallop-out was pretty awesome. It was pretty impressive," trainer Todd Pletcher said after the work.
3. Orb: Again, would be shocked to see him off the board and McGaughey reiterated this week he isn't going to move forward unless he sees "the right kind of race" in the Florida Derby. If he continues to behave in the gate and breaks well, he may not be at the mercy of the pace as much as one would anticipate.
4. Vyjack: Scheduled to have his final workout before the Wood Memorial Saturday morning at Aqueduct. Is going to face by far his toughest competition in Verrazano next weekend but his prior works have been outstanding and there is nothing he hasn't been able to adjust to.
5. Revolutionary: For as much drama as he got involved in against seven others in the Withers Stakes, navigating 13 rivals in Saturday's Grade II Louisiana Derby for this trouble-prone colt will be interesting to watch. This spot was picked for him with Fair Grounds' long stretch in mind to help his cause. And the last time he got a clear trip in his five-race career, he won by 81/2 lengths at Aqueduct.
6. Shanghai Bobby: The Florida Derby is kind of his make-it-or-break-it spot, not so much in terms of points but in showing that 11/4 miles could be in his scope. Drawing the rail will force his hand, not exactly the pace his connections hoped. "There's not much we can do at this point," said Jack Wolf of co-owner Starlight Racing. "The trainer's got the horse ready and the horse is going to do his own speaking."
7. Hear the Ghost: Worked 6 furlongs in 1:13.60 at Hollywood Park last Sunday as he readies for the Grade I Santa Anita Derby next weekend. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer has shrugged off talk that Hear the Ghost's San Felipe Stakes win was the product a pace meltdown. "Those (prep) races are more under the microscope, so everybody's going to look closer at those," Hollendorfer said. The fact the gelding has already won sprinting and around two turns in just three career starts suggests his kick might be for real.
8. Flashback: The screws are tight as the son of Tapit worked 6 furlongs in a bullet 1:11.80 at Santa Anita on Monday. For those who like comparisons, recall that last year a certain Bob Baffert-trainee named Bodemeister also suffered a narrow loss in the San Felipe in his third career start, but got the experience needed to win big in his final pre-Kentucky Derby prep. We'll find out how much Flashback has grown up in the Santa Anita Derby next Saturday.
9. Will Take Charge: Already back to work after his Rebel Stakes win, breezing 4 furlongs in :49.20 at Oaklawn on Thursday. Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes remains a possibility if trainer D. Wayne Lukas opts to give him one more start before the Kentucky Derby. Would be a fitting spot as his dam Take Charge Lady was unbeaten in five career starts at Keeneland including three Grade I wins.
10. Oxbow: Also worked Thursday, going 6 furlongs in 1:16 flat at Oaklawn in preparation for a likely start in the Grade I Arkansas Derby on April 13. Oxbow has raced at six different tracks in eight career starts with one finish worse than fourth. Lukas has never been one to baby his potential Derby horses and this colt seems to thrive on more work.
11. Black Onyx: The prettiest horse in the paddock before last Saturday's Grade III Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park ended looking all kinds of handsome when he took the lead at the head of the lane and kept going for a 11/2-length win over Uncaptured. Is 2-for-2 for trainer Kelly Breen and arrived on the grounds of Churchill Downs this week to train up to May 4. Has won on all three surfaces, including a mile victory on the dirt at Aqueduct last year. Still needs to grow up mentally and make a big leap to handle the step up in class coming.
12. Rydilluc: Trainer Gary Contessa has been gushing about how well the Palm Beach Stakes winner is training into his expected start in the Blue Grass Stakes. His latest move was a 7-furlong outing on the turf at Palm Meadows completed in 1:30.18 with a last quarter in 24.4 according to Contessa.
The next dozen
Uncaptured, Normandy Invasion, Den's Legacy, Govenor Charlie, Goldencents, Palace Malice, Departing, War Academy, West Hills Giant, Tiz a Minister, Java's War, Code West.
Off the trail: Ive Struck a Nerve, Delhomme.