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Sunland Derby: Overvalued Qualification Race?

Daddy Nose Best Sunland Derby
Photo: Coady Photography/Sunland Park
Inaugurated in 2003, the Sunland Derby has come a long way in a short amount of time. The snap shot of its timeline: off the radar to worth a total of 85 qualification points. Did something happen in this short amount of time that made this prep so reputable. I can’t give one year or one single horse all the credit but the second biggest long shot in Kentucky Derby history may have helped.  
 
 
At 50.60-1 Mine That Bird paid $103.20 to win when he and Calvin Borel stormed home along the rail and shocked the thoroughbred racing world. The triumph ranks behind Donerail who in 1913 was sent off at odds of 91.45-1 and paid $184.90 to win.
 
 
If you ask an experienced handicapper how they learned to master the racing form they’ll probably tell you that they learned a few things when losing. By going back to your program and looking at the winner you might find something you missed. If so, those same details that were once buried in the charts become more apparent the next time around. However, there are also times that when you do, you won’t see anything different or find anything at all. This is when you just shake your head and right it off as either a mystery or the work of the racing god’s.
 
 
In my opinion, 2009 was the latter. What’s so curious about Mine That Bird is that he didn’t race in a single graded stakes race in his 3-yr-old season prior to the Kentucky Derby. That’s right, it wasn’t until 2010 that the Sunland Derby became an official graded stakes race.
 
 
Before this moment in racing history the Sunland Derby had yet to send to a single entry to the Kentucky Derby. Obviously that ended in ‘09 but what is also interesting about that year is that Mine That Bird was not the only entry that would eventually qualify for the big show. And this was accomplished regardless of the fact that neither of the two were able to finish in the money at the Sunland Derby. Finishing right behind MTB in 5th was Advice, trained by Todd Pletcher at the time. Following the Sunland Derby he would move on to score in a last ditch effort, the Lexington Stakes, and thus found his way into the Kentucky Derby starting gate. Mine That Bird on other hand did not need another stakes race as he had earned enough in his 2-yr-old season to qualify.
 
 
After these two broke the ice, the Sunland Derby continued to make an impact on the Kentucky Derby trail. The following year it was a Grade III stakes race and since, at least one horse within the field the following three years was able to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.
 
 Year           Horse            SD Result
 
 
Here is where the debate can begin. When combined with 2009, has the Sunland Derby produced enough quality Kentucky Derby contenders to have earned the prestigious honor of being included in the new qualification system? If you’re on the border with that question than maybe you’d rather I ask if it should be worth a total of 85 points?
 
 
Something that makes the case against the Sunland Derby is where these horses over the past three years finished on the first Saturday in May. Unfortunately, none of them were able to finish anywhere outside the middle of the pack - Daddy Nose Best & Twice the Appeal: 10th – Conveyance: 15th. Something else that does not help the argument is that the Sunland Derby was their last prep before they moved on to Churchill Downs. So, they didn’t exactly come away any better than they were going in and did not beat any other Kentucky Derby entries. Maybe they were just the best horse in a very mediocre field?
 
 
However, there is a pretty solid counter point to that argument: Their résumé in races leading up to the Sunland Derby. Because Conveyance and Daddy Nose Best both scored G3 wins prior to the Sunland some could argue for a nice prep season and defend their place in the starting gate.
 
 
Another overall argument as to why this race was included in the new points system is based on two key ingredients: distance and dirt. Because Churchill Downs made it pretty clear that distance was a major factor, and because so many qualification races are on the dirt, it probably helped the Sunland Derby as much as or more than anything else.
 
 
Which brings me to back to the tough question: Should it be worth 50 points to the winner? I ask because while I do agree that the Sunland Derby should be included, it does not help me answer if it should be a win in you’re in race. Of course that is based on the assumption that 50 points will be enough to get you into the 2013 Kentucky Derby but it definitely seems likely.
 
 
I understand that the timing of the race would make it awkward if the Sunland Derby was valued any differently but there would be a remedy to that if Churchill Downs made a suggestion. Live racing at Sunland Park begins in December and runs through the end of April. So, now that this has been added to the equation do you think that the Sunland Derby should have been moved back to February so that it could have been included with the qualification races worth only 10 points to the winner and 17 overall?
 
  
For now, however, that’s not what happened. Plus, racing at any value below 85 total points is not in the cards this season. One thing that is encouraging, however, is that a few of the sport’s top trainers will be using it. Unfortunately, with the defection of Titletown Five, D. Wayne Lukas is not one of those trainers. But, guys like Baffert, Pletcher, Asmussen, and O’Neill have still put the Sunland Derby in a very good position moving forward.
 
 
The reason I mention these trainers is because if any of them begin to like this Kentucky Derby prep a little more under the new system then this debate may not last very long. As we saw in 2009, it only takes one year to change the way a Kentucky Derby prep is perceived. So, after 2013 will we see if any of these horses become the second Sunland Derby entry that went on to wear the roses? Or at least finish in the top 3?
 

 

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Older Comments about Sunland Derby: Overvalued Qualification Race?...

I'm going with Dry Summer
i AM INTERSTED IN MATCHUP OF SHAKIN IT UP VS ABRAHAM SUNDAY WITH GOVCHARLIE PLACING THIRD.
Mike in SB is absolutely right the Illinois Derby will be slighted because of the company that runs Twin Spires as they own Arlington. It might change if slots revenue comes into play, but if Illinois racing is still the of dog eat dog situation, it will not be recognized.
You are right Cocoa I should have said that the present ownership is only concerned with money and for that reason will never limit the field below 20. The ownership is also the reason the Illinois Derby is not in the system, because of the fight between Arlington and Hawthorne over dates.
I do believe the Sunland Derby should be recognized, but at the same time, if they are going to recognize that race, they should recognize the Illinois Derby
How much does the "thin" air in New Mexico affect horses shipping in from other parts of the country. I'm sure the altitude has to have an adverse effect on horses not accustomed to racing out there.
The ownership is not the issue, rather the betting standpoint... You have 20 horses, imagine the dough they rake in!
There seems to be something wrong with this formula. With the point system in place, this race should have not been ignored. To add to the lure, $800K is a nice purse. To see that five of the nine starters only have a maiden win to their credit, and three of those, in their last race. I am curious as to how the Illinois Derby might be shaping up this year? If there is something of a strong field, could it be a statement being made by the horsemen?
Matt I agree about the 14 horse field for the Derby, it would make a much better race. But it will never happen with the curent Churchill Downs ownership.
The more I think about the points system the more I think that the real issue is the 20 horse field in the Derby. I have really been thinking that the modification should be getting rid of the auxilliary gate and starting only 14 horses.
Agreed Mike in SB! I believe the 50pt Sunland Derby makes more sense as a solid Derby prep than a 100 pt. Dubai UAE Derby at Meydan which is likely to be won by a Southern Hemisphere 3yo not eligible to run in the Kentucky Derby.
While this year is a pretty weak field on paper, I believe as the trainers adapt to the new system this race will start to attract better horses. In a few years, under the same system, the Sunland Derby could become a very good race. One of the best things about the new system to me is how it will strengthen the traditional prep, the 100 point races are all looking very strong compared to recent years, and in the case of the Sunland Derby the new system will help create an important race in New Mexico. This is good for the fans and bettors in the Southwest.
Not exactly, Ew, but it's not one of the "bigger" venues, but I totally agree, you'd think easier points. Maybe some don't like the track condition. Has it been shown to favor certain running styles--not sure about that.
I guess location might have something to do with it, but horse ship from new york to florida all the time. Isnt it a bonus to know that you have a horse that ships well? Im always sceptical of the horses that stay in california and never leave, or we all know the recent history of the horses that havent left New York to prep. Unless you mean location in the sence that "Eww, who wants to go to New Mexico!" LOL
Location?
Lets keep it how it is. If a trainer wants the points for the horse, they should ship the horse in to NM and run. I dont understand why a horse that has stamina pedigree wouldnt choose this over an 8.5 f race. Seems to me there ought to be more 9 f prep races. Then we might get more than a handful of horses in the Kentucky derby that can make the distance. The folks that make up the system have already eliminated all the 7 furlong races, making it a point that they dont want sprinters in the derby. Too many horses run the 8.5 furlong races like a sprint, only to get passed like they are standing still coming down the stretch. They still make the derby finishing in the money. I still cant figure out why this race didn’t draw a better field.
Last year's running of the Sunland Derby, not that the frontrunners were so great, turned into a foolish waste of a speed duel. Almost like the jockeys didn't want their mounts to have a chance.
It's a 9f, so, distance-wise it's a test(like you said, Matt), and it was foolish of top contenders, that need points, but will be fighting for those by competing with other top contenders, for instance in Florida, to not swoop into New Mexico and pick up these available points, and not to be boring/redundant, but I already said this on another thread/other threads. Also, it was a criminal act to not include the Illinois Derby as a Kentucky Derby points race--that whole malice aforethought thing. "Free The Illinois Derby."
It definitely should not be worth 50 points to the winner. Move it back to February and make it worth 10 points to the winner. And for once, I agree with travel_vic; the Illinois Derby is way more relevant to the Kentucky Derby than the Sunland Derby is.
There is no way that this contest, despite its inflated purse, has, historically, been even the equivalent of the Illinois Derby.

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