02/21/2013 4:11PM

Jay Hovdey: Comma to the Top makes it add up

Benoit & Associates
Comma to the Top won the 6 1/2-furlong Daytona Stakes in the slop at Santa Anita on Dec. 29.

For those keeping score at home, and you know who you are, the new Kentucky Derby eligibility system kicks into high gear Saturday when the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream and the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds each offers 85 points spread across the first four finishers in a 50-20-10-5 formula that guarantees howls of righteous protest when some poor horse is beaten a dirty nose for the win.

By contrast, the winner of Nascar’s coveted Daytona 500 on Sunday in Florida will earn between 43 and 48 points toward the Sprint Cup Series championship, while the second-place finisher gets 42, third gets 41, and so on down the line.

The contrast is apparent. Nascar has decreed that no race is more important than any other in its marquee series, and that consistency of performance over the long haul should be more highly rewarded than the occasional flash in the pan. A race like the Daytona 500 still carries with it the heft of grand tradition – there’s not a driver alive who does not want to win it – but if they do, they’d better show up the following week in Phoenix, and after that in Las Vegas, and then Bristol, Tenn., or else take a chance of losing their place in a fiercely competitive line.

Horse racing scoffs at such a sensible approach to its competitive schedule. Instead, everything builds to only a pair of orgiastic moments – the Derby and the Breeders’ Cup – with everything in between labeled as so many preps. And while the best horses are likely to win the most preps, unless they perform at their peak on one of those two or three preeminent days, their season will be all but forgotten.

The Derby points system has received praise from those who see it as a good thing that purse earnings in graded stakes events are no longer the determining yardstick for participation in the Churchill Downs extravaganza. There is nothing more artificially manipulated than purses, and no ratings formula more nonsensical than the Graded Race System, so good riddance to both.

Still, the Derby points system practically mandates a field of 20 runners, and that number is determined by the capacity of the starting gates rather than the judgment of sober horsemen. As long as the Derby remains a race that seems to demand participation, restrictions must be in place. Sail ho then on the maiden voyage of the new points system.

Had the current system been in place for the 2011 Kentucky Derby, Gary Barber and partners’ Comma to the Top would have earned 61 points with his win in the CashCall Futurity (10 points), his second-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby (50), and his fourth in the El Camino Real Derby (1 point). Whether or not 61 points would have been enough to make the field that year requires more math than your correspondent is willing to endure. But it is an irrefutable fact that Comma to the Top, at 35-1, gave hot pursuit of Shackleford from the start in that Derby and was still among the leaders at the top of the long Churchill Downs stretch before Pat Valenzuela mercifully eased the gelding through the final eighth of a mile to finish last in the field of 19.

Comma to the Top emerged from the Derby with a chipped ankle that required surgery. By the end of 2011, he was back in action, and after a shorter break at the beginning of 2012, he has answered the bell more often than any other serious West Coast sprinter, with four wins in nine starts since last June.

On Saturday, Comma to the Top and his trademark four bandages will lead the post parade for the $200,000 San Carlos at Santa Anita Park. Back when horses and their trainers were made of sterner stuff, the seven-furlong event was won by such all-around Thoroughbreds as Ack Ack, Native Diver, Hillsdale, and Flying Paster on their way to longer races for the cream of the division.

[SANTA ANITA: Get PPs, watch video previews of Saturday's stakes]

More recently, the San Carlos has become strictly a race for sprinters who have got that extra furlong. Comma to the Top, who won the 6 1/2-furlong Daytona Stakes in the slop at Santa Anita on Dec. 29, will be facing Pat O’Brien winner Capital Account, Palos Verdes winner Sahara Sky, Breeders’ Cup Sprint runner-up The Lumber Guy, and the rejuvenated Midnight Transfer. The purse is $200,000, plus 6, 4, or 2 points toward a berth in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita in November.

As far as trainer Pete Miller is concerned, the purse is fine and the points don’t really matter. It’s who is not in the race that counts. Private Zone, who hounded Comma to the Top into fourth-place finishes in both the Underwood at Betfair Hollywood Park and the recent Palos Verdes, is passing the San Carlos to run in Dubai’s Golden Shaheen.

“That’s got to help,” Miller said. “The plan is to bounce out of there and let him do his thing. Go as fast as he can as far as he can.”

Sounds simple, but then the best plans usually are. Comma to the Top was a local star at 2 when he swept three races on turf and synthetic in the fall at Hollywood Park, then expanded his résumé as an older horse to win over a variety of surfaces from five furlongs to a mile, always right on or near the lead.

“Knock on wood, the ankle has never been an issue,” Miller said of the post-Derby injury. “He’s one of those rare cases who came back from surgery as good as he was before. He’s all filled out and matured now, big and stout like a draft horse. But basically he’s the same guy he’s always been. You just love being around horses like that.”