DERBY PREPS NEED TOUGHER ENTRY STANDARDS

Maybe it’s time for major Kentucky Derby preps to establish standards for entry.

An outlandish dozen colts passed the entry box for Saturday’s Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream. The only chance for three or four of the overmatched entrants is, in the words of Al Michaels, “Do you believe in miracles…Yes!”

Consequently, because of the short run to the first turn for mile-and-a-sixteenth races at Gulfstream, the chances of some legitimate contenders are severely compromised because of outside draws.

It is extremely difficult to win from beyond the eight hole going 8 ½ furlongs. From post 12, it is close to impossible. Big Brown did it in the Florida Derby but how often does a Big Brown come along? Starting from the 12 gate has been partially blamed for California Chrome’s miserable performance in the first Pegasus Stakes.

As a result of little-chance entrants in the Fountain of Youth, the inside four posts are assigned to a 15-1 shot, a 50-1 shot, a 30-1 shot and another 50-1. Meanwhile, gutsy Mucho Macho Man winner Chance It, who has lost only once, by a head, in five starts since a second in his career debut, is marooned out in post 12. He’ll need more luck than it takes to hit the Rainbow Six to make an impact.

Inside him are Liam’s Lucky Charm, the only horse to beat Chance It in his last five races (#9); Remsen winner Shotski (#10) and Ete Indien, who ran second to Tiz the Law in the Holy Bull (#11).

This is just not right. Dennis’ Moment, who figured to be a tough beat under any circumstances, will be even tougher from the 5 slip. With his main competitors spotting him what amounts to a head start, there is really only one reason to entertain making a serious play against him, his demonstrated ability to beat himself. He threw his jockey in his debut and came out behind the field and stayed there in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Flavien Prat is coming in from Santa Anita to try to get him away on time, which might be all he needs.

Little to no chance horses show up in big money races all the time. That occasionally one of them finds his way into the money is one of racing’s charms.

However, more is at stake than the $400,000 pot in the Fountain of Youth. It’s an 85-point (50-20-10-5) Derby qualifying point race. For many, if not most of the starters, it’s their next to last chance to make the Run for the Roses.

A post-hampered poor finish will put them into a win-or-else situation in the next phase, where they might have to pick their poison of whether to face Tiz the Law, Dennis’ Moment or one or more of Bob Baffert’s monsters.

Recognizing that not every problem has a facile solution and that tracks care only about handle, which increases with field size, I have a few suggestions.

For Derby point races, allow all comers as long as the field doesn’t exceed eight to ten. If more than that number want in, deny entry to maidens. This would have taken The Falcon and Gear Jockey out of the FoY.

Next, say no to horses whose only wins are in cheap claiming races.  In seven starts, Makabim broke maiden for $12.5K claiming and three claiming races later won for $16K. Both were sprints. Odds are greater that he will get in the way of a legitimate contender than that he will hit the board.

Turning away would-be starters in major stakes is not unprecedented. The Breeders’ Cup does it. These three omissions from the FoY would have brought the field down to a manageable nine.

It’s always possible a dozen or more horses would meet all reasonable qualifications. That’s horse racing. Like I said, not all problems have facile solutions.

An extraordinary card

Saffie Joseph Jr., trainer of Chance It, had better luck of the draw for undefeated filly Tonalist’s Shape in the Devona Dale. She also drew the outside slot, No. 9, but the stakes for Kentucky Oaks hopefuls is at a flat mile out of the chute, so the outside could not be better.

Tonalist’s Shape has one of the more intriguing past performance charts you’ll ever see. She won at 5 1/2 furlongs by 1 ¼ lengths. At 6 ½ furlongs, she won by 2 ¾. Racing seven furlongs she got home on top by 3 ¾ lengths and at the mile distance of the Davona Dale she won by 9.

Her challengers include Todd Pletcher’s sensational maiden winner Spice Is Nice, a million dollar filly who won her debut in January by 12, and Bayerness, who’s two-for-two in Kentucky.

The Davona Dale is one of nine stakes, eight graded, supporting the Fountain of Youth.

The afternoon is dotted with star quality. Shivaree, who was expected to be taking on Imperial Hint in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, heads the Hutcheson.

Vitalogy, whose trainer Brandon Walsh was incensed when he was scratched from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf by the Santa Anita stewards, returns in the Palm Beach. “They didn’t seem to think that he was sound enough to run for whatever reason,” Walsh said. “We brought him home, got him checked out, there was absolutely nothing wrong with him and here we are.”

You have to wonder how often this happens now in uber-cautious California and how much it has to do with all the five- and six-horse fields.

Zulu Alpha, who took the $1 million Pegasus Turf in January returns in the $200,000 Mac Diarmida.

Bring lunch and maybe a pillow to take a nap. The long day starts at 11:30 a.m. and continues past 6 p.m. with the Fountain of Youth as race 14.

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5 Responses

  1. TJ, have my pillow so I’m ready for tomorrow; LOL.

    Have no argument with your “nine horse” Fountain of Youth. Two maidens out; yes, but the track could make use of an also-eligible list; if they draw in, they are outside looking in. And the claiming-maiden-breaker?

    Guess the only rejoinder to that would have been Maximum Security. But he runs for what you termed “blood money” in one recent column. Agreed.
    #NeverForget

    In terms of uber-cautious Santa Anita; maybe not a bad tack–the Jerry Hollandorfer catastrophic breakdown count recently increased to eight since the 2018-2019 session. They got that one right,

  2. I thought of Maximum Security but after his $16K maiden breaker, he won a pair of optional claimers to make his record 3-for-3.

    But the point you make made me think of another alternate solution. Make Derby preps “invitationals.” That way you could keep out no-chance horses unless the field was coming up extremely short.

    The 2020 Pegasus is a good example. When the strong contenders started to defect, virtually anyone who wanted in was let in.

    This brings us to another point. We might be upset about what’s happening in the FoY but Gulfstream is probably delighted. The more horses the more exotic possibilities the bigger the handle. The high double-digit odds horses might not be a threat to win but they can slide into the third, fourth or fifth positions in the super exotics, so they have to be used.

  3. In Race 8 at Gulf yesterday (MSW) there was a triple-digit place horse (116-1) under Tyler G. Completes bomb exacta underneath favorite. Not something you see that often. DM becoming a mystery horse. Any thoughts on this non-performance appreciated.

  4. TJ,
    Your field-limiting strategies make a lot of sense, but if no such good judgement is exercised for the Kentucky Derby, why should it be imposed on the qualifying races?

    Ultimately, the 12-horse scratched. Inconveniently, the actual FOY winner overcame the accurately-described obstacle presented by the outer post that I too lament, and was well-backed in the process.

    Was that the second coming of Big Brown we witnessed?

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