Up this week are two more major prep races for the May 4 Kentucky Derby, Aqueduct’s Wood Memorial and the Santa Anita Derby. Under the new Churchill Downs system for making the field, graded stakes earnings have been replaced by a point system. The highest level races – at least according to CD – are awarded 100 points, which each of these races is worth. The races will be broadcast on the NBC Sports Network with post times at 6:28 and 7:00.
The Aqueduct race features the undefeated Verrazano, who looks like a legitimate morning line favorite; Normandy Invasion who is a nose away from being two-for-two on the main track; and, Vyjack, the Gotham winner who is two-for-two on the main. Each has run a Beyer speed figure that suggests he could take this race.
The California event looks much more competitive on paper, even with the scratch of the second morning-line favorite Hear the Ghost. Flashback, Power Broker, Tiz a Minister, and Goldencents have each placed in a graded stakes on the Santa Anita strip, and Super Ninety Nine owns the field’s only triple digit Beyers including one at Santa Anita.
There continues to be discussion about the wisdom of the point system, although I am beginning to think it is little more than the arguments horse players love. Shanghai Bobby, winner of two of last year’s main juvenile races, essentially ran himself out of the field with a disappointing 5th place in the Florida Derby, 10 lengths behind the winner. Remarkably enough, he remained in the top 20 in points, although that is likely to change with four 100-point races yet to be run. The reality, however, is that two-year old stars often do not make it in their sophomore year. And, horses who do not run well in their final Derby prep do not end up with roses.
A more salient argument is that the system bars fillies who run only in restricted races from competing in the Derby, with Dreaming of Julia, a Gulfstream Park winner who ran two seconds faster than the Florida Derby winner, being prominently mentioned. Of course the last filly to win on the first Saturday in May smoked the boys in the Santa Anita Derby. Nonetheless, the ill-fated second-place finisher Eight Belles did not run previously against the boys, nor did Rachel Alexandra prior to her win in the Preakness. There is, of course, a fairly simple solution to any possible injustices that could result from the point system. Churchill could reserve one or two places in the starting gate for entrants they deem worthy. The first 18 or 19 would then get in based on points. No more controversy.