The Brock Talk

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Of All Kentucky Derby Lists, Only One Rules

When a horse steps onto the trail for the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1), there are two types of races they must win in order to prove themselves worthy of going to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May. There are the horse races on the track in which they must win or compete strongly, and the graded stakes earnings race. The needed victories in races seem obvious, but it is the graded stakes earnings list that determines who gets the precious 20 spots in the starting gate for the Derby.

And then there is the challenge of getting through the remainder of the trail injury free, hope racing luck at least leans in your direction and outperform the one hundred or so 3-year-olds that are still seriously on the Kentucky trail. Seriously is a relative term here. There is an apparent difference between the those that may be serious contenders and those whose human counterparts are seriously dreaming about a spot in the Derby… but little else.

Yet a look back at the grade stakes earnings list of Kentucky Derby contenders in the middle of March last year may give more credence to the so-called dreamers. Of the top ten on the graded stakes earnings list as of March 16 last year, only half made it to the Derby. They were Looking at Lucky (left), Noble’s Promise, Discreetly Mine, Dublin and Homeboy Kris.

Of the eventual top three finishers in the 136th running of the Derby last year, only Super Saver was ranked in the top 20 at this time last year AND he was ranked 20th. Runner-up Ice Box was not ranked in the top 40 and Paddy O’Prado came in at number 23.

Ice Box was not the only Derby starter in last year's Derby not to be ranked in the top 40 of 3-year-old graded stakes earners in mid-March. Stately Victor, Mission Impazible, Devil May Care, Dean’s Kitten and Lines of David were all ranked below the 40 mark in graded earnings this time last year. Make Music For Me, the fourth-place finisher in the Derby, was ranked 12th on the graded stakes earnings list in mid-March last year, yet became the last to qualify for a slot in the Derby starting gate with $55,000.

One can expect a similar pattern of changes from between now and the Derby on May 7, there are seventeen graded races for 3-year-olds including the Palm Beach Stakes on turf this weekend and two 7 furlong graded stakes in the Bay Shore and Swale. Those races are not exactly the kind of races in which a contender needs to run leading up to the 1-1/4 mile Kentucky Derby on dirt. Regardless, the earnings still count so one never knows.

The purses for those 17 remaining graded races before the Derby total $8.8 million, so there is plenty of graded stakes earnings yet left to be disseminated. Depending on the conditions of each race, there are at least 85 opportunities in those 17 races to earn graded stakes money.

It is difficult to determine the graded stakes earnings cut-off for the 20 Derby positions. Last year, Make Music For Me needed $218,750 in graded earnings to qualify. But the year before, No Where To Hide needed on $55,500 to make into the 2009 Derby. In 2008 Denis of Cork qualified with the lowest total at $165,500 while Imawildandcrazyguy pulled into Churchill Downs with $104,000.

With Sweet Ducky and Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. 3) winner Brethren currently tied in the twentieth spot on the grade stakes earning list at $120,000, it is not difficult to imagine or even predict it will take more than last year’s $218,000 to qualify for Kentucky Derby 137.

Although $8.8 million in 17 races seem like a good number of opportunities for a Derby hopeful, don’t think that makes those dollars and races any less precious. Realistically, each horse has two more stops on the trail before Kentucky in the next 60 days or so. Some connections may push for three starts, but that is just not practical - especially if a five-week Triple Crown is at all a part of their plan.

Choosing those two races are perhaps some of the most important decisions a trainer can make leading up to the Derby. Case in point this year is Brethren. Brethren won the traditional prep race for the Tampa Bay Derby, the Sam Davis Stakes (gr. 3) Feb. 12. He is the logical favorite for the Tampa Bay Derby Saturday unless Uncle Mo runs. Uncle Mo is entered, but trainer Todd Pletcher is looking for another race that weekend for Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. 1) winner and Champion Uncle Mo so as not to run him against Brethren. Uncle Mo is slated to start in the Timely Writer Stakes at Gulfstream Park, also on Saturday, but if for some reason the Timely Writer does not fill with enough entries, Uncle Mo will be going into the Tampa Bay Derby.

With Brethren on the bubble the winner’s share of the $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby is $210,000. That would give him $330,000 in graded stakes earnings and probably enough to qualify for the Derby. But the second-place check of $35,000 puts Brethren at only $155,000 and in all likelihood in need of another big performance leading up to the Derby. That race would likely be in the late grade 1 preps like the Florida, Arkansas and Santa Anita Derbies or in the Wood Memorial. Other avenues for Brethren might include some of the lesser late preps like the Illinois Derby (gr. 3) April 9 or the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. 2) April 23. But Brethren would be in a must win situation in those races that have $250,000 and $200,000 purses respectively in order to get into the Derby. Even second place in, say the $1,000,000 Arkansas Derby would be $200,000 and third money of $100,000 may be enough to qualify.

So one can easily see the challenges ahead for those on top now, but also envision a set of circumstances that sees a Machen, currently ranked at 51 with $12,000, qualify for the Derby. Trained by Neil Howard, the son of Distorted Humor will have to improve vastly over his recent fourth in the grade 2 Risen Star in February. But imagine if he wins the $1 million Louisiana Derby (gr. 2) Mar. 26. With $612,000 in graded stakes earnings, he's Kentucky bound. Even with the second-place money of $200,000 and Machen is suddenly up from 51 to being at least the proverbial Kentucky Derby bubble of not enough to qualify.

There are so many decisions to be made by trainers with condition books and graded races to be run between now and the Kentucky Derby. Hence there will be races studied and evaluated by serious horse players, fans and trainers alike. Results will be recorded and horses will climb and fall the many Kentucky Derby lists published by turf writers and bloggers. But the list everybody will be watching is the graded stakes earnings of each Kentucky Derby hopeful. Because that's the one that counts.


Susie Blackmon said...

Wow! A most informative article, which for me adds even more interest and intrigue to the weeks until the Kentucky Derby. Thank you!

suebroux said...

Any time someone can explain this whole Derby bankroll business with clarity, I'm thrilled! Great job.

And this is why the KDFW pools drive me batty, i.e., how does Machen - with a whopping $12K in his savings account - get considered to be a wagering interest? Isn't the future wager based on if he can even get into the starting gate, much less win the Derby?? Maybe that should be your next lesson ;-)

Brock Sheridan said...

Thanks for the nice comment Susie.

Sue, I did cover future wagering a bit in my April 4 blog. At the time of the blog and after Machen had a disappointing 4th in the Risen Star, Machen was 35-1 in Vegas. I'm like you, he might be 35-1 to even make the Derby unless he bounces back strong in the $1 La. Derby.