MIAMI, March 29, 2013--Not all final Kentucky Derby preps are equal, even if Churchill Downs is treating them that way when it comes to doling out qualifying points for the May 4 Run for the Roses.
Three of the final seven championship stage stakes are this weekend. They are not only â€świn and youâ€™re inâ€ť but â€śplace and youâ€™re in,â€ť too, since second is worth 40 points. They range from the strongest of the final preps, the Florida Derby, to the weakest, the UAE Derby, which has no business counting for any points.
Here is the way I see the relative standing of the not always magnificent seven preps.
The Florida Derby (March 30) has the most high quality depth with three of the top five horses in most Derby polls, Orb, Itsmyluckyday and Shanghai Bobby.
Orb looks a lot like the 2013 version of Iâ€™ll Have Another. He had a moderate 2-year-old campaign but showed his promise breaking his maiden in his final start of 2012. He is two-for-two as a 3-year-old, including a vanquishing of then undefeated Violence in the Fountain of Youth. Significantly, the 2013 victories have come in his only starts around two turns.
However, tread carefully in the Florida Derby. Orb has the 50 points to make the Derby field, so Shug McGaughey isnâ€™t going to have John Velazquez wring him out.
Shanghai Bobby (24 points) and Itsmyluckyday (10) are not yet safe, so there will be no taking it easy in the rematch of the Holy Bull, which produced a Gulfstream track record.
The Wood Memorial (April 6) A showdown of unbeatens, Verrazano and Vyjack, would be the equal of the Florida Derby except for one factor. Neither needs additional points to qualify for the Derby, so itâ€™s another case of perhaps leaving something in the tank for the first Saturday in May.
This could open the door for Normandy Invasion, back on his home track, Maryland late-developer Mr. Palmer and Elnaawi, who had a tough trip in the Gotham, to grab a substantial piece of the purse and the crucial Derby qualifying points.
Then again, the V-boys might be good enough to dominate with B efforts.
Bob Baffertâ€™s highly touted but notably absent Power Broker could also wind up here if he doesnâ€™t stay home for the Santa Anita Derby.
The Santa Anita Derby (April 6) features round two of Jerry Hollendorferâ€™s Hear the Ghost vs. the colt Bob Baffert considers his top Derby hopeful, Flashback. The latter did the hard work in the San Felipe only to be run down late by Hear the Ghostâ€™s well timed swooping move from the back of the pack. An argument could be made that Flashback, who loomed the winner at the sixteenth pole, didnâ€™t see Hear the Ghost coming until it was too late to fight him off.
Goldencents, Doug Oâ€™Neillâ€™s big hope for a Derby repeat, was dueled into submission by Flashback but has run too well in his other starts to be dismissed.
Baffert is likely to have at least one other starter, Southwest winner Super Ninety Nine, who might do the dirty work on the front end for Flashback.
Unless someone replicates Secretariatâ€™s Belmont or there are bizarre results back east, the winner of the Santa Anita Derby figures to be no better than fourth or fifth choice in Derby betting.
Arkansas Derby (April 13) Oxbow has become the wise guy horse in many circles after running his guts out in vain due to brutal trips in the Risen Star and Rebel. Having The Coach, D. Wayne Lukas, calling the shots adds to his appeal.However, itâ€™s hard to rank a race, whose probable favorite is coming off back-to-back defeats, higher.
This is especially true when Oxbowâ€™s main challenger could be Overanalyze, winner of the famously unproductive Remsen.
A couple more second-stringers from Team Baffert, hard trying Denâ€™s Legacy and late arrival on the scene War Academy, also will attempt to punch a ticket to Louisville.
Louisiana Derby (March 30) This is a quantity over quality event with 14 starters, most of whom have shown flashes of brilliance without really distinguishing themselves.
Todd Pletcherâ€™s Revolutionary is the one to beat but itâ€™s always dicey to take a short price on a horse with his broken field, late running tendency. But if you're going to run like that, the Fair Grounds, with its stretch that goes on forever, is the place.
Another Pletcher, Palace Malice, epitomizes promise without production so far.
Baffertâ€™s Code West, a courageous second in the Risen Star, also figures to be fighting to the end.
A victory by Titletown Five or undefeated Departing wouldnâ€™t be as shocking as I've Struck a Nerve's 130-1 upset in the Risen Star.
Blue Grass (April 13) The winners since Keeneland installed Polytrack have been Dominican, Monba, General Quarters, Stately Victor, Brilliant Speed and Dullahan. The Hall of Fame in Saratoga isn't holding a spot open for any of them.
Dullahan did get up for third in last yearâ€™s Derby but he has never won a race on anything but an artificial surface. Brilliant Speed, despite a third in the Belmont, was essentially a turf horse.
Rebel winner Will Take Charge and Uncaptured, second off a layoff in the Spiral, will attempt to reverse the trend of turf and kitty litter specialists dominating this stakes.
There certainly will be enough turfers bidding to keep the streak going: Noble Tune, Charming Kitten and the most intriguing of all, Rydilluc. After a disappointing main track debut, Rydilluc has rattled off three dominant turf scores. Trainer Gary Contessa said the lone defeat was a product of other circumstances, not a dislike of the main track, and that Rydilluc has handled dirt as well as turf since then.
UAE Derby (March 30) A misguided attempt to foster internationalism has this among the 100-points-to-the-winner preps. It shouldnâ€™t be.
Breedersâ€™ Cup runner-up Heâ€™s Had Enough will try to sneak through the Derbyâ€™s back door with a win or a second. It will be a travesty if it happens. Off his 3-year-old races, there would be no way he would qualify back home.
This is not an attempt to list all the possible Derby horses or to forecast which race will produce the winner. Too much can happen in the next five weeks.
But if you like a 3-year-old not mentioned here, right after you register a comment about what an idiot I am, get on a plane to Vegas, because you will be handsomely rewarded in the futures book if you are right.