The best horse won, and the manner in which it was prepared may have re-established the one-horse-one-trainer tradition for Derby Trail aspirants. With tremendous patience and mastery of his craft, Claude McGaughey made a convincing case for concentrated conditioner care; at least for those paying premium prices for premier bloodlines.
In contrast, Todd Pletcher displayed equally masterful management expertise in making multiple TC hopefuls eligible for multiple clients. Yet even with five starters (of which four were widely considered strong contenders), there was no trip for the trainer to the winner’s circle. Perhaps one his owners must be wondering whether full focus on his particular colt would have made a difference; then there are alternatives.
Joel Rosario eliminated all doubts that he is the nation’s top jockey. This year’s game of musical mounts returned Rosario to Orb but appeared to weaken Pletcher’s hand. Recently injured John Velazquez retained his choice of Pletcher mounts on Verrazano.
But Javier Castellano took himself off Revolutionary after having guided that colt to successive victories. There was no Garrett Gomez for Palace Malice because he already took a commitment aboard Vyjack. Joe Bravo opted off Charming Kitten for Black Onyx, who suffered a minor injury and was an early scratch.
It appeared that Orb was a selection more among those who could appreciate the effectiveness of his lengthy preparation at Churchill Downs; something that did not leap off the past performance charts but was noted by several workout observers. Orb’s potential was also camouflaged somewhat by many speed figure makers who thought his Florida Derby was on the slow side.
The sloppy track, the final piece of the handicapping puzzle, left many of us scratching our heads right up until post time.
Finally, did the new rules live up to expectations with respect to the outcome? Yes and no.
As an aside, Black Onyx was eventually scratched due to injury, the result being that the rail position in the starting gate was left empty so no horse suffered any ill effects from the rail post in a 20-horse field. The absence of the rail-position obstacle should be the rule rather than the exception.
Random post position draws are entirely appropriate when entrants require no qualification for entry and there is no significant hindrance associated with one particular post, such as the rail. There must never be a repeat of the Lookin At Lucky episode in 2010 when the top earnings qualifier, betting favorite, and subsequent Preakness winner, lost all chance at the start when pinned against the rail – just as everyone expected he would be!
To excel in mandatory trials only to face arbitrary obstacles at the last moment is self-defeating. Simply selecting post positions in reverse accumulated eligibility point total order might be an improvement but would excessively reward entrants competing in the higher point preps, which may or may not have been the most competitive.
Consider the following concept as a starting point for determining post selection order: Once all eligible starters have been identified, each would be assigned Draw Points. Unlike Eligibility Points, Draw Points would also reward participation in multiple preps, which promotes the creation of rivalries and rooting interests.
Draw Points could be as simple as inversely valuing the top four finishes in any prep; e.g., 1st-4, 2nd-3, 3rd-2, 4th-1.
Draw Points could also reflect the level of the preps by adding 1 if the race were worth 85 qualifying points, or 2 if it were worth 170.
Ties in Draw Point totals would be broken by accumulated eligibility points.
One change Churchill officials could consider is the status of the UAE Derby. I understand the politics. But consider that 3rd and 4th finishers might qualify on points, how realistic is it to expect they would ship into quarantine in a timely manner only perhaps to become also-eligibles?
Besides, winners of that race have yet to perform very well in the Derby, although Lines Of Battle ran creditably indeed, but also without mounting a serious win challenge. Perhaps that race under our guidelines could be downgraded to 85 points with a North American race taking its place at the 170-point level.
Illinois Derby redux, anyone?
The following is a synopsis of how each prep fared this year relative to Derby starters: The most productive prep was the Louisiana Derby with four. Three representatives were qualified by the Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, Risen Star, Tampa Bay Derby, Delta Jackpot, and Kentucky Jockey Club.
Those preps sending two were the Arkansas Derby, Rebel, Spiral, LeComte, Holy Bull, Gotham and Remsen. Those with a lone representative included the Santa Anita Derby, UAE Derby, San Felipe, Fountain of Youth, Sam F. Davis, Southwest, Smarty Jones, Withers, Sham, Cash Call Futurity, Breeders’ Futurity and Champagne.
Those with no representatives were the Sunland Derby, Robert E Lewis, El Camino Derby, Derby Trial, Lexington, BC Juvenile, FrontRunner, Grey, and Royal Lodge
There always seem to be instances when races cannibalize one another because of scheduling conflicts within the same basic region. Rather than have short fields in each, perhaps the point values of those races could be tweaked vis a vis scheduling to one another. Those races figure to be weaker due to the likelihood of smaller fields. Consideration should be given to how better to deal with that scenario.
More food for thought: With six starters coming off five weeks rest, including the win-place-show finishers, the Lexington and the Derby Trial are unlikely to contribute again next year. Shouldn’t their point totals decrease from 20? This subtraction might have been enough to qualify an entrant this year from those major preps that should be as strong as possible, even if the later events were intended to enable horses with existing points to move up.