The Brock Talk

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Kentucky Derby Conditions Help Wrong Horses Qualify

The $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is in the books and with it, the $1,080,000 in graded earnings that went to the winner, Hansen (inside horse photo right). Favorite Union Rags missed catching Hansen by just a head in the Juvenile, but still pulled down $360,000 for finishing second and pushing him over $800,000 in graded earnings - or money won in America’s most significant races for 2-year-olds. Graded earnings are not so significant now; for Hansen and Union Rags the differences are small anyway. For horses at this level in their 2-year-old career, graded earnings often only eliminate the $30,000 or so made in the maiden ranks.

Graded earnings become more important when planning for the 2012 Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands. And when a horse has enough graded earnings to qualify for the Derby by the preceding new year, it makes those plans much, much less stressful.

In the case that more than 20 horses want to enter the Kentucky Derby, the conditions of the race give preference to those with the most earnings in graded races. At least twenty horses have entered the Kentucky Derby every year since 2004 with it taking an average of $128,708 to make the entry box over the last six years.

Six months ago, Derby Kitten was the last “bubble” horse to get into the Derby with $120,000. Eventual Preakness winner Shackleford was also one of the final qualifiers for the 2011 Kentucky Derby with $212,000 in graded earnings at entry time. Nowhere to Hide made it into the Derby starting gate with the least graded earnings ($55,500 in 2009) while it took Make Music For Me a record $218,750 to enter in 2010. The Kentucky Derby has been limited to 20 starters since 1975.

Granted, the Derby is still seven months away and the graded earnings list may not be as popular in the water cooler circles as March Madness Basketball brackets or Super Bowl office pools that feature the over/under on how long it takes to sing the National Anthem; but the graded earnings list will be widely followed by racing fans before the first Saturday in May of 2012 arrives.

Whether graded earnings is the best qualifier for a Kentucky Derby field has been the topic of much debate since they were first used to determine the Derby field in 1986. Under particular fire is the rationale behind using performances from horse’s 2-year-old seasons to determine who qualifies for the Derby, run one-third of the way into a horse's 3-year-old campaign.

It is puzzling that the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is so influential on Derby qualifiers when it has only produced one Kentucky Derby winner in 27 years. Street Sense won the 2006 Juvenile and 2007 Kentucky Derby. However, Street Sense was also the last Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner to even start in the Kentucky Derby. Among the 2011 Derby field, only 12th-place finisher Stay Thirsty had started in the Juvenile.

Other grade 1 races for 2-year-olds have had been even less productive in producing Kentucky Derby winners, yet graded money earned by running in these races in 2011, will help qualify horses for America’s most important race in 2012.

The last Kentucky Derby winner that also won the grade 1 Champagne Stakes at two was Sea Hero in 1992 and 1993. The last Champagne winner to start in the Derby was Scat Daddy, 18th in the 2007 Derby. By the time the Derby comes around again on May 5, 2012, it will have been two years since a Norfolk Stakes (gr. 1) winner made to Kentucky for the Derby when Lookin at Lucky was sixth in the 2010. No winner of the Norfolk Stakes has ever won the Kentucky Derby the following year. It has been since 1984 when Swale won the Kentucky Derby after winning what is now the Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity, Keeneland’s Fall grade 1 event for 2-year-old colts and geldings.

Yet Dullahan, winner of the Breeders’ Futurity and third in the Juvenile, and Creative Cause, the Norfolk winner and fourth in the Juvenile, join Hansen and Union Rags with enough money already to qualify for the 2012 Kentucky Derby.

There is still the grade 1 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park with its $750,000 purse and the $1 million Delta Jackpot (gr. 3) at Delta Downs yet to be run before year’s end.

Previously known as the Hollywood Futurity, the CashCall Futurity has had plenty of prestige in its 31-year history with its winners including Kentucky Derby winner Real Quiet, Preakness and Belmont winner Point Given, Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy, Best Pal and Snow Chief.

But the Delta Downs Jackpot was designed to be affiliated with the Kentucky Derby. Sponsored by Boyd Gaming, the Delta Downs Jackpot was first run in 2002 at one mile. The next year, the race was increased to 1-1/16 miles in distance and given a $1 million money with hopes of attracting top horses. The plan worked and in 2006 the Delta Jackpot ran as a grade 3 race.

Once the graded status came, the major horsemen followed. Delta Downs Jackpot winners included Birdbirdistheword (2006), Z Humor (2007-DH), Turf War (2007-DH) Big Drama (2008), Rule (2009), and Gourment Dinner last year. Only Z Humor has made it to the Derby, finishing 14th, but Rule and Big Drama went on to productive careers. Rule stayed on the Kentucky Derby trail winning the Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. 3) and finished third in the Florida Derby before being sidelined by injury. Big Drama just retired as the winner of the 2010 Breeders' Cup Sprint and earnings of more than $2.7 million.

Pre-entries for the November 19, Delta Jackpot include Drill, the Bob Baffert-trained winner of the grade 1 Del Mar Futurity but a disappointing tenth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile; and Jake Mo, fifth in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint. The day at Delta Downs also includes the $500,000 Delta Downs Princess among the eight stakes and $2.2 million in purses that night.

There are no rooms available at the Delta Downs Casino and Hotel for Friday or Saturday night next week, so the Delta Downs Jackpot has put “butts in seats” as they say in sports marketing. It has also promoted the racing instituted by Director of Racing Chris Warren who has channeled the casino money effectively into his racing program. As a further indication of the Jackpot quality, trainers Steve Asmussen, Kelly Breem, Al Stall Jr., Bret Calhoun and Jerry Hollendorfer also have horses pre-entered in the Jackpot.

The Delta Downs Jackpot will also create another 2-year-old qualified for the 2012 Kentucky Derby. Along with the CashCall Futurity winner, the top four finishers from the Juvenile; Wrote, winner of the Juvenile Turf and Juvenile Sprint winner Secret Circle, at least eight 2-year-olds will have more than the $300,000 In graded earnings, more than what is expected to be needed to enter the Kentucky Derby.

By no means does that mean that all eight will make it to the Kentucky Derby. But it does mean that these eight will have less pressure put on them in February, March and April when other 3-year-olds are trying to accumulate graded earnings. Logic and history tell us the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby, Wood Memorial and such have the greatest impact on the Kentucky Derby.

Horses in those races are making their final preparations for Kentucky and have already overcome many of the obstacles that will stop a great many of the top 2-year-olds from the year before. And it would be a shame to see an close third-place finisher in the grade 1 Wood Memorial Stakes get excluded because a horse earned money in the grade 3 Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs nearly a year ago.

But that is the way the Kentucky Derby conditions read. And until they are changed, I hope the south Louisiana fans get to see a future Kentucky Derby winner. And I congratulate Delta Downs management for taking advantage.

No comments: