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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Stepping Up the Derby Pressure

We're through the first leg of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series and the final and the most valuable prep races under the new points system will take place over the next three weeks. The next seven races in the Series will award the top four finishers on a 100-40-20-10 basis. For further information about this year's Derby check out this 2013 Kentucky Derby site for all things Derby. 

When Churchill Downs unveiled the new points system it appeared that it had several criteria and goals for the races that would present the top four finishers with qualifying points to the Derby: 1) No races under one mile in distance; 2) No turf races; 3) More emphasis on the major prep races later in the prep season and 4) Larger, competitive fields setting up an "almost playoff-like atmosphere" in leading up to the Derby (my words). Stepping up the game in the final weeks leading up to the First Saturday in May.

Well the first three goals/criteria all made perfect sense to me and the fourth seems to make sense as well. While critics of the system have focused more on the individual races and point assignments as weak spots within the system (the Juvenile, Illinois Derby and Derby Trial come to mind), all in all the system will likely get the best horses in the gate on the First Saturday in May.

So has the system produced larger fields so far? Let's take a look at the First Leg of the Series, the last eight races that produced points of 50-20-10-5 to the top four finishers in comparison to the same races last year, when graded earnings was the benchmark for gaining a Derby gate.

When looking at the First Leg of the Series, consisting of eight races from Feb. 23 through March 24 (Sunland Derby), those races produced 81 starters versus 86 in 2012. The average dipped slightly from 10.75 to 10.125.

The results were not altogether surprising as these races have been long-time preps with valuable graded earnings. What we may see is that the next round of races will produce full fields (already the Louisiana Derby is expecting 14 starters) that will exceed prior year numbers.

While the result in both cases for the winner earning a spot by winning a $1M race or a 100 point race, coming in second and garnering 40 points could get a horse into the Derby, if a horse had scraped some points together during the Prep Season portion of the Series.
What did I think of this weekend's activities?
-        Sunland's typical suped-up track produced track records in the Sunland Oaks/Derby for the Baffert/Pegram connection. Not sure the Derby winner was in that race, although the Govenor (Charlie) seems to be a nice horse.
-        Midnight Lucky, on the other hand, hardly broke a sweat in romping to victory in the Sunland Oaks, and could be an exciting filly to watch in the Kentucky Oaks.
-       The Spiral saw a horse coming out of a Gulfstream turf allowance (Black Onyx) win the race impressively, but not sure he'll be the answer come Derby day. His only win on dirt prior to the Spiral was on a fast off track at Aqueduct. The Rock Hard Ten colt held off second choice Uncaptured to send the Kelly Breen/Joe Bravo combination to Louisville.
-        Pletcher could only muster a third with Abraham in New Mexico over the weekend, and his once mighty stable, could struggle to get more than Verrazano into the gate on Derby Day. He'll need second place finishes by Revolutionary (Louisiana Derby), Palace Malice (Louisiana Derby) and Shanghai Bobby (Florida Derby) next weekend to secure another spot behind Verrazano. I'm guessing it may be getting a little warm under the collar at the TAP barn.
-        Next weekend's races kick off the racing portion of the television schedule on NBCSN (channel 220 on DirecTV). I checked in on this weekend's inaugural show which included this year's top stories, Rosie Napravnik, Gary Stevens and Pletcher, of course. Not sure why they couldn't have shown the Spiral, which had a nice crowd and had an exciting race. It went off at 5:50pm, delay it 10 minutes show the race and get on with the fluff.



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