With the advent of the new Kentucky Derby point system, get ready for near misses, sure things and surprises.
First before we take any steps into the future Derby starting gate, let's agree that the likely cut off point for making the Run for the Roses will be 50 points. How do we arrive at 50 points? The final 15 races in Churchill's new plan give either 50 or 100 points for winning horses. If there are no repeat winners in this group of races (and with the way trainers run, or more specifically don't run their Derby hopefuls), then they'll be 15 different horses owning the top 15 winning scores of 100 or 50 points. This leaves room for five more Thoroughbreds, who I think will come from those already earning 10 points or more at this point in the road.
Unlike Orb, who had no Derby points until his first place Fountain of Youth finish, there are several horses from Shanghai Bobby's 24 points to the gridlock of horses at 10 points each that could reach the 50-point plus club with second through fourth place finishes through this first leg of the championship series (20, 10, 5 points respectively) and then earn 40 points for a second-place finish in the second leg, thus finding their way into the Derby gate with more than 50 points.
In fact, the early point-getters from either their two-year seasons or early in their three-year-old year have just enough of cushion to get in with a little room to spare. It's highly likely that Goldencents, 24 points; Code West, 20 points; Oxbow 16 points and Speak Logistics, 11 points will get in if they hold form. Goldencents is scheduled to have two more starts and has a definitive upper hand in getting in with second place finishes in the San Felipe Stakes and Santa Anita Derby. Oxbow has one more scheduled shot at redemption and needs at least a second place finish in his final prep, which is likely to be the Louisiana Derby. Code West could run out the Oaklawn prep series with starts in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby.
The biggest surprise, thus far, is 135-1 shot, Ive Struck a Nerve, who nailed Code West on the line in the Risen Star Stakes. Regardless of his next performance I say the Keith Desmoreaux-trainee makes the Derby gate, under my starting gate thesis, with a score of 51. This probable one-hit-wonder will likely keep out horses like Uncaptured, who will probably need the Tampa Bay Derby as a conditioning race and will finish less than first and/or a horse like Will Take Charge, who failed to contend in the Southwest Stakes and needs any points he can get wherever he runs next.
The most intriguing decisions of this somewhat complicated Derby equation will rest with trainers Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher, who have multiple horses running at multiple tracks. If any of their numerous contenders has a misstep both Baffert and Pletcher will have to enter multiple entries in races like the Arkansas, Louisiana and Florida Derbies or the Wood and Blue Grass Stakes. This is easier said then done and places the dreams and hopes of one owner versus another. Competing stablemates can leave sour tastes in the losing connections' mouthes, figuring if the trainer trained well enough such situations would be avoided. A potential client disaster waiting to happen.
Is the new point system better? Who knows, but there are always unintended consequences to changes in any system. It's obvious that Churchill wanted to place greater emphasis on current form of three-year-olds by providing the highest possible points on the prep races closest to the Big Dance. In graded stakes earnings days, a couple of big two-year-old wins were a lock for horses who failed to continue their good form the following year - think Gourmet Dinner. Remember him?
And as the plight of Violence reminds us, injuries along the way will play a huge roll in reshuffling the Derby deck. So stay tuned and plugged in for this road to Derby greatness, the ride is about to get bumpy.