03/28/2011 3:48PM

Kentucky Derby: Graded stakes earnings in spotlight after latest round of preps

Barbara D. Livingston
Pants On Fire (left) holds off Nehro to win the $1 million Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds.

NEW ORLEANS – Increasingly, as the May 7 Kentucky Derby nears, earnings in graded stakes races will become a focal point of attention, and that critical factor got ratcheted up several notches this past weekend, when Pants On Fire, Twice the Appeal, Animal Kingdom, Decisive Moment, and Master of Hounds – none of whom were near the top of anyone’s list of Derby contenders – all likely made enough money to put them in the field.

Pants On Fire was the biggest winner, earning $600,000 for his upset victory here in the Louisiana Derby on Saturday at Fair Grounds. But Twice the Appeal got a big paycheck ($400,000) for his win in the Sunland Derby, as did Animal Kingdom ($285,000) for capturing the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park. The runner-up finish by Decisive Moment in the Spiral Stakes, combined with his lucrative second-place finish in last year’s Delta Downs Jackpot, gives him a nice wad of graded cash, exactly $301,000. And following the second-place finish by Master of Hounds in the United Arab Emirates Derby – worth $400,000 – trainer Aidan O’Brien told the British television show “At The Races” that Master of Hounds “would have a Kentucky Derby option.”

“The Kentucky Derby is a great race,” O’Brien told “At The Races.” “He handled the surface well out in Dubai and he’s a horse that has tactical speed, and we were delighted with his run.”

Graded stakes earnings are the criteria used to determine the Derby field if more than 20 horses are entered, and that has become the norm in recent years; there have been at least 20 horses entered in the Derby seven straight years. There are still several lucrative prep races to be run, including four races – the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial, and Arkansas Derby – worth $1 million, so the cutoff point for the top 20 could be raised significantly, depending on the top finishers in those races.

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Regardless, it looks as though a figure like $250,000 will not be as comfortable a position as in recent years. And that puts a horse like Elite Alex, who finished fourth in the Louisiana Derby as the second choice, in a very precarious position.

Pants On Fire returned by van to the Palm Meadows training center on Sunday after earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 94 in the Louisiana Derby. His trainer, Kelly Breen, said he spoke with co-owner George Hall after the race and that they were in agreement that Pants On Fire should not race again until the Kentucky Derby, a layoff of six weeks.

Mucho Macho Man, who finished a close third in the Louisiana Derby despite losing his right front shoe at the start of the race, was reported in good condition by trainer Kathy Ritvo. She said she was relieved that Mucho Macho Man did not do any apparent damage to his right front hoof, despite losing his shoe at the start of the 1 1/8-mile race. She theorized that Mucho Macho Man overreached with his right hind foot at the start of the race, tearing off the right front shoe.

”He tore it off good,” Ritvo said. “Right from the start.”

Mucho Macho Man was scheduled to return to Florida on Tuesday.

Animal Kingdom, who got a 92 Beyer for his win in the Spiral Stakes, will train in Kentucky before a possible start in the Derby, which will hinge on how he handles dirt, a surface over which he has yet to compete in four career starts.

“He was very impressive, I thought,” trainer Graham Motion said.

Motion said he wants to see “how he gets over the dirt” before committing Animal Kingdom the Derby.

Though Animal Kingdom will be based at Keeneland, “We’ll take him over to work at Churchill,” said Barry Irwin, president of Team Valor International, which owns Animal Kingdom.

“Then we’ll go back and work him a second time, and if we like how it’s going, we’ll just stay there and run in the Derby,” Irwin said. “If not, we’ll figure out something else to do with him.”

Regardless, “I don’t think he’ll run again before the Derby,” Motion said. “We ran him back quick this time.”

Decisive Moment shipped Monday from Turfway to Churchill Downs.

“We have enough earnings to make the Derby, so that will be our next race,” said Juan Arias, who trains Decisive Moment.

Twice the Appeal, a former maiden-claimer, got an 89 Beyer for his upset victory in the Sunland Park Derby. That was 10 points lower than the figure recorded by Plum Pretty for her runaway victory in the Sunland Oaks.

“Our intention is to run him in the Kentucky Derby,” said Jeff Bonde, who trains Twice the Appeal.

Plans are undecided for Astrology, second in the Sunland Derby in his first start of the year and in four months.

“I was extremely pleased,” said Astrology’s trainer, Steve Asmussen. “It’s been well documented that we missed some time because he got sick when he went to California. [Four] months off and running a mile and an eighth, I thought he ran a very credible race.”

“We’ll try to be honest with ourselves and see how much this took out of him,” Asmussen said.

Asmussen said that Nehro, the Louisiana Derby runner-up, would likely make his next start in the Arkansas Derby to try and add to the $200,000 he made Saturday.

– additional reporting by Marty McGee, Mary Rampellini, and Mike Welsch