Getting an early start on any project can sometimes be the key definition between success and failure. “The early bird gets the worm” as the old saying goes. Trying to apply that benefit to betting on the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands – or horse betting on any other race for that matter – can sometimes add to confusion of an already challenging task. Because in horse racing, significant changes can happen in an instant while others seem to just come to the front under the circumstances and pressures of owning, training or riding a thoroughbred bound for the Kentucky Derby.
The conditions of the Kentucky Derby dictate that should more than the maximum 20 horses enter, graded stakes earnings will be used to determine those 20 horses eligible to run. Every year since 2004, the Kentucky Derby has overfilled at the entry box.
Last Saturday morning the cut-off for eligibility to enter the Derby belonged to 20th ranked Santiva and his $242,397. Trainer Aidan O’Brien had also confirmed from Europe that UAE Derby (gr. UAE2) runner-up Master of Hounds (photo) would be entered into the Kentucky Derby. That late decision pushed pushed Watch Me Go out of the Derby with his $235,500 in graded earnings.
There were two graded races for 3-year-olds run last weekend that had the potential to impact the graded earnings list – the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. 3) at Keeneland and the grade 2 Jerome at Aqueduct. Despite the fact that both races had their respective grades, neither seems ideal for a last start before the Kentucky Derby. Both races were just a short two weeks away from the Derby. Horse of this calibre are accustomed to running more on a three or four-week cycle. Like the Blue Grass Stakes, also a Keeneland, the Lexington was run on the artificial Polytrack while the Derby is on natural dirt. And the Jerome was a one turn mile.
Champion trainer Steve Asmussen had horses in each race, but only Silver Medallion in the Lexington was believed to be headed to Kentucky. He also had Astrology in the Jerome, but had indicated to Churchill Downs officials that he was not likely to run in the Derby (though Astrology already had enough graded earnings to be ranked a comfortable 17th in graded earnings with his $281,893).
Silver Medallion, on the other hand, needed some help. His $184,397 was far enough below Santiva’s earnings, that Silver Medallion needed either the $120,000 winner’s check or the $40,000 second-place earnings to garner a spot in the Derby starting gate.
Silver Medallion ran fourth in the Blue Grass behind winner Derby Kitten and the $10,000 check did little ti help qualify for the Derby. Astrology, however ran a good second in the Jerome, spawning a case of Derby fever that co-owner George Bolton had to deal with. Perhaps it was just for a few moments in Bolton's mind or maybe even a day or two, but Astrology was possible for the Derby. That would have pushed Santiva out and Jaycito into the bottom spot with $250,000. That also pushed stable mate Silver Medallion all the way down to the 25th spot, pushing down hopes of Silver Medallion connections to make the Derby.
Asmussen received some good news that day that jockey Corey Nakatani had committed to riding Arkansas Derby (gr. 1) runner-up Nehro. Nakatani had also been riding Santa Anita Derby second, Comma to the Top but had chosen Nehro for the Derby. Comma to the Top trainer Gary Barber was prepared and quickly named jockey Pat Valenzuela to ride in Kentucky. Valenzuela won the 1989 Kentucky Derby aboard Sunday Silence.
Then Tuesday came and the defections began. As expected, J P’s Gusto was taken out of the Derby after finishing seventh in the Rebel (gr. 2) and eighth in the Arkansas Derby (gr. 1). Soon Bolton came with the expected news that Astrology would in fact, not run.
Santiva and Watch Me Go were back in the Derby. Then trainer Bob Baffert, who had just announced that Jaycito would not run, confirmed the same about Rebel Stakes (gr. 2) winner The Factor. The Factor had been recovering successfully from surgery to repair an entrapped epiglottis that was the likely cause of The Factor's dismal third in the Arkansas Derby. But the son of War Front was nowhere near ready to compete in the Kentucky Derby.
Suddenly, Shackleford and Twinspired are in the Kentucky Derby and the cutoff has gone all the way down to $197,500. That again takes us back to Silver Medallion, who now is on the bubble, ranked at 21st with his $194,334.
As soon as Twinspired gets the nod, jockey Robbie Alabardo is forced into a decision between the second-place finisher in the Blue Grass and Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. 3) winner Animal Kingdom. Albarado chose Animal Kingdom leaving Twinspired trainer Mike Maker without a rider. Maker was ready and quickly named Mike Smith to ride Twinspired. Smith won the 2005 Kentucky Derby aboard Giacomo and was the regular rider for Horse of the Year Zenyatta more recently.
One conundrum that hits Kentucky Derby owners and trainers each year this time, is the opportunity to replace a regular, lesser-known, regional jockey with a nationally established rider for the Run for the Roses. Derby experience can be vital to a jockey who needs to negotiate through the 19 other horses and all the potential trouble thereof. But it's usually the local guy that rode all those races that got the horse to the big dance.
In 2009, Calvin Borel (photo left) picked up the mount on longshot Mine That Bird, who had made his last start in the then un-graded Sunland Derby. Casey Lambert, a stalwart rider in the Southwest for many years, had ridden Mine That Bird in his races at Sunland but had never ridden in the Kentucky Derby. Borel, who had won the Kentucky Derby on Street Sense two years earlier and was a regular rider at Churchill Downs, was given the mount on Mine That Bird and together they won the Derby.
This year, the Sunland Derby was a grade 3 and winner Twice The Appeal is in Kentucky with trainer Jeff Bonde. And like 2009, Borel takes the mount on the Sunland Derby horse while jockey Christian Santiago Reyes, while the 2009 champion apprentice in earnings, bowed out to the more experienced Borel.
The team behind Decisive Moment took the loyalty road with regard to their riding chores. Kerwin Clarke, a 52-year-old mainstay on the Louisiana circuit, picked up the mount on Decisive Moment because of his experience riding at Delta Downs in the Delta Downs Jackpot (gr. 3) last November. They finished second at Delta but won the ungraded Jean Lafitte the next race. Back in graded competition, Decisive Moment was fifth in the Risen Star (gr. 2) then second in the Spiral, but Saturday, owner Ruben Sierra announced that the 52-year-old Clarke – with former Derby winners such as Kent Desormeaux and Edgar Prado without mounts, would get the mount on Decisive Moment in the Kentucky Derby.
When J P’s Gusto was withdrawn from the Derby Tuesday, it marked the second time in three years that jockey Cliff Berry lost his first chance to ride the Kentucky in the days leading up to the race. In 2009, Berry was set to ride Rebel Stakes winner Win Willy in Kentucky before his was withdrawn in the final week. The 48-year-old Berry has been a leading rider in Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas in recent years and won the 2011 grade 1 Oaklawn Handicap this year with Win Willy.
Just in case you're now comfortable with the Kentucky Derby field, the last chance for more graded earnings comes a week before the Kentucky Derby when they run the Derby Trial (gr. 3) Saturday night at Churchill.