First, it was a daylight event, thereby drawing more interest by fans to witness the running as it was run.
Send, and most significantly, was the fact that this year’s “Derby qualifying” winner isn’t the automatic entrant it once was when graded earnings was the criteria.
The decision to change the criteria can’t rightly be called a “corporate” board decision, not when the pronouncement was made after the track’s president, racing director, marketing department and publicist reasoned that a point system weighted heavily toward traditional major spring preps was in the best interests of the Derby itself.
We applauded the decision then and do now, even if we can nitpick in favoring the inclusion of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Illinois Derby into the mix.
Even if Street Sense was the only Juvenile-Derby repeater in history, a race that defines a champion and has produced runners-up that have worn roses the following May; Spend a Buck, Alysheba, Sea Hero and Mine That Bird qualifies as a meaningful Derby barometer.
This year, the 2011 Juvenile runnerup Union Rags was a troubled seventh as the 5-1 second favorite and unplaced Dullahan finished third on Derby day. Juvenile show finisher Creative Cause was a close-up fifth in Louisville after steadying between horses early and forced eight wide entering the stretch.
The Churchill panel chose 36 qualifying preps, skewing the choices toward the traditional major-prep series at the host tracks, their popularity based on attendance and handle and the size of the purses.
It’s no upset that the move met with the displeasure of many horsemen who don’t mind going for the big bucks, preferably while facing the equivalent of equine tomato cans as a heavy favorite.
In our view, the panel got their minds right trying to insure that the best possible horses line up in the Derby gate.
The panel believes that if the division’s leaders brand themselves against top-flight competition, hoping that major-circuit, mini-rivalries develop to add to the intrigue of Derby day.
As Delta Jackpots go, Saturday’s was, on balance, one of its better renewals as the top three finishers all ran well, the exacta horses underscoring the quality demonstrated earlier.
After running off the screen to break maiden going 5-1/2 furlongs over Del Mar’s Polytrack, trainer Doug O’Neill got ambitious and shipped Goldencents cross country for the Grade 1 Champagne where he placed gamely from the pole in the storied one-turn mile despite being pressured throughout.
Of course, it’s noteworthy that the winner, Shanghai Bobby, remained undefeated in five starts after winning the Juvenile and securing the two-year-old championship.
Following his front-running victory in Vinton, La., jockey Kevin Krigger said that 10 furlongs in May is well within his scope, which is exactly what you’d expect the young man to say.
Harsh judges will look at his final sixteenth of 06.85 somewhat askance, but considering early splits of :22.64 and :46:22, the classy Into Mischief colt is deserving of some slack. It was the first stakes win for the young sire.
As the race was run, runnerup Bern Identity, who came into the event with the strongest credentials, might have been best. The G2 Sanford winner and Hopeful third, won the Jean Lafitte prep for this but had awful luck on Saturday.
Trapped between horses on the far turn, Paco Lopez was forced to wheel him to the extreme outside, losing valuable ground at a critical stage. He came flying home for place, showing some greenness but finishing strongly nonetheless.
Third finisher Mylute, second in the Jean Lafitte could develop into a three-year-old prospect.
Jockey Gerard Melancon somehow decided it was prudent to crank up from the middle of the track with a solid half-mile remaining, looping from the 5-path into contention into the stretch but, understandably, weakened late. He certainly would have been closer with more judicious handling.
Instead of automatic Derby qualification, Goldencents has 14 points, adding 10 yesterday to the four points he earned as the Champagne runnerup. Shanghai Bobby has 20, 10 each for the Champagne and Hopeful.
The present Derby quinella matches what the ratings would have been under the old system, which should, temporarily at least, eliminate some of the hand-wringing.