02/20/2013 3:55PM

Kentucky Derby points quest begins in earnest

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Barbara D. Livingston
Majestic Hussar enters the Fountain of Youth in search of his first Kentucky Derby qualifying points.

With the value of prep races to the May 4 Kentucky Derby rising exponentially this week, trainers are getting right to the points.

Both the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds and the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Saturday are worth 50 points to the winner. That’s five times more than the 19 races run so far for which points could be earned under the Derby eligibility system put in place this year by Churchill Downs. A second-place finish is worth 20 points, and third is worth 10, which is what winners earned in those first 19 eligible prep races.

There are six more races this month worth 50 points for first, and then come seven races in which the points double, to 100 for the winner. In those seven races, merely finishing fourth is worth 10 points, meaning fourth in the Florida Derby, for instance, is equivalent to winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

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Considering that the current points leaders are Sham Stakes winner Goldencents and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Shanghai Bobby, both with 24, the importance of upcoming races cannot be overstated.

As a result, sizeable fields were entered for both the Risen Star and the Fountain of Youth, and that should be the norm for preps from this point. The Risen Star drew an overflow field of 15, compared to 11 entrants in 2012 and 10 in 2011. The Fountain of Youth drew 11, a significant spike from the seven who ran in 2012 and eight in 2011.

One significant reason for the uptick in entries is that horses can no longer get to the Derby by sticking to sprints, which was a possibility – hello, Trinniberg! – under the old, graded-earnings-based system. That was among the reasons trainer Eddie Kenneally said the Fountain of Youth made far more sense for Majestic Hussar than, say, next week’s Swale at Gulfstream, a seven-furlong sprint that offers zero Derby points.

“That was probably a part of it,” Kenneally said Wednesday of the desire to send Majestic Hussar two turns for the first time this weekend. “You definitely have to keep track of the points system if you want to run in the Derby. We’ve got to try to get him eligible. We also wanted to run him in a longer race because we wanted to find out what we have, now. It helps, certainly, if he can get at least a part of this.”

The funneling of horses into two-turn races also likely will change the complexion of these preps, since a horse like Majestic Hussar is likely to set the pace.

Todd Pletcher, who sends out Violence in the Fountain of Youth and Palace Malice in the Risen Star, said: “I think there’s a number of effects from the point system, and one of which I think we probably are seeing a little bit this weekend is where you see some horses that perhaps would’ve maybe run in another one-turn race like the Swale are going ahead and jumping out into the Fountain of Youth or the Risen Star. And so we’re possibly seeing a change in the pace scenarios in some of these races, where beforehand they might have rolled the dice and with the graded earnings been able to get into the Kentucky Derby without really having any two-turn experience.”

In years past, Violence and Palace Malice would have been at different ends of the spectrum in terms of Derby eligibility at this stage. In December, Violence won the CashCall Futurity, whose winner’s share of $375,000 would already have put him safely in the Derby field. Instead, he has 10 points, exactly 10 more than Palace Malice, who is making his stakes debut.

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“Some of these horses, like Violence and Shanghai Bobby, who won significant races as 2-year-olds, would already be secured a position in the starting gate based on graded earnings,” Pletcher said. “In this case, while they’re still towards the top of the points leader board, they’re still far away from securing a position.”

That said, Pletcher said the new system has not impacted how he is managing his Derby prospects.

“I don’t know that their prep schedules have changed much,” he said. “What’s so critical is that they run well, and I think in their cases they’re only going to have two Triple Crown prep races, so obviously we need them to perform well in those races.”

Because the new system is backloaded in terms of points, late bloomers like Palace Malice and the unbeaten Verrazano – another Pletcher trainee who also has no points – are not as far in arrears as they would have been under the graded-earnings system. But Pletcher said that under either system, good performances in the last two Derby preps are paramount. Verrazano is scheduled to make his next start in the Tampa Bay Derby on March 9.

“In some ways, it’s not really different,” Pletcher said, “because if Verrazano or one of these horses that’s later developing – Verrazano or Palace Malice – were to come along and win the Risen Star and the Tampa Derby, or their follow-up races, they were still going to have plenty of graded earnings to get in, so I don’t know that part of it has really changed.”