This Saturday is one of horse racing’s big days with Dubai’s World Cup Day and two major Kentucky Derby preps. It is couch potato heaven for the racing/college basketball fan who can squeeze in two hoops games determining half of the Final Four.
The preps are the Florida Derby and the Louisiana Derby, which will be broadcast on the NBC Sports Network from 6:00 to 7:00. The Gulfstream Park event has special significance for last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, Shanghai Bobby, because of the adoption by Churchill Downs of a new system for qualifying. In recent years, purse earnings in graded stakes determined which 20 horses would run for the roses. This year, Churchill has implemented a system in which races are assigned a point value. Aqueduct’s Withers, run in early February, is only a 10-point race, while the Gotham a month later is worth 50, and the Wood Memorial is worth 100 points to the winner. (The first four finishers receive points in a ratio of 10-4-2-1.) Under the old system, Shanghai Bobby would have been a lock for the field with earnings of well over a million dollars from his wins in the Juvenile and Champagne, but this year those events are worth only 10 points each. Instead of being atop the list of prospective entrants, he is only in 12th place with 24 points. Since Churchill estimates it will take at least 40 points to qualify, Shanghai Bobby needs at least the 20 points from a third place finish in the Florida Derby to be reasonably comfortable of a spot in the starting gate on May 4.
I never thought the prior system had any drawbacks, even though almost every year had one or two disgruntled owners (and fans) upset about the exclusion of someone. However, I cannot think of a single horse that was prevented from running who went on to be a racing star. (The same can be said about at least 15 of the horses who did run in the Derby for any given year.) But let’s imagine a scenario in which a Shanghai Bobby has a troubled trip and finishes in a four-horse blanket finish but loses the photo for third, and all four horses run triple-digit Beyers. While he could still compete in another pre-Derby prep, it’s obviously not the plan envisioned by his trainer. I think that result would result in Churchill again modifying its rules.
The Florida and Louisiana derbies are two of the seven 100-point races on this year’s schedule. A third one will also be run on Saturday, but if you sleep late you could miss it. The UAE Derby from Dubai’s Meydan race course is part of a magnificent program that presents the best racing in the world, beginning at 9:10 AM (sic). It will be part of TVG’s coverage, and I hope it will also be on the New York’s OTB channels. Although Dubai World Cup day is not only a spectacle - how often do you see a seating section in which the seats are thrones - but it brings together an international group of horses - something that does not even occur for the Breeders’ Cup - and is a true handicapping challenge. The full Meydan card is annually one of my must-see racing events. (Free PP’s are linked to at the equidaily.com site.) Incidentally, the UAE Derby also presents another potential embarrassment for the new Churchill points system. He’s Had Enough, only a head behind Shanghai Bobby in the Juvenile, has shown nothing this year stateside, but could vault to the head of the class with a win, or even earn a spot in the field with a second, since this is a 100-point event. If he does qualify, he will likely join a list of Dubai runners who were “also rans” in Louisville.
What should also be a source of embarrassment for American racing is the fact that Dubai does not permit race-day medications such as Lasix. While the Breeders’ Cup backed down from its position of not allowing the anti-bleeding medication in its races, Dubai never seems to lack for eager participants including, usually, a healthy contingent of Americans. Among other runners from the US this year are Little Mike, Royal Delta and Animal Kingdom.
I hate to continue with a theme of embarrassments, but I would be amiss in not mentioning the latest entry by Frank Stronach in this category. For some reason I have yet to understand, he sponsored a contest to determine “Ms. Racing Queen.” A video of the award ceremony can be seen here. (This link is also from equidaily.com.) I have long considered Stronach one of the most detrimental forces in racing, but nothing I could say can match the eloquent takedown of this insipid contest than the one by Catherine Toner, published at Brooklyn Backstretch.com.