04/02/2014 3:06PM

Kentucky Derby: Pressure's on for Candy Boy in Santa Anita Derby

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Candy Boy earned only 10 points for this victory in the Robert Lewis in February and needs a strong race in the Santa Anita Derby to make the Kentucky Derby.

John Sadler, the trainer of Candy Boy, and Lee Searing, who owns Candy Boy with his wife, Susan, knew it was a calculated risk to manage Candy Boy the way they have this spring, running him in a Kentucky Derby prep worth 10 points for first, skipping one worth 50 points to the winner, and then knowing that a race worth 100 for first would determine their fate for the May 3 Derby.

It is high risk, but it could also be high reward.

The risk was starkly illustrated last Saturday, when Cairo Prince, who has had a schedule in Florida similar to Candy Boy’s in California, finished fourth in the Florida Derby, putting in jeopardy his chances of making the Derby field, what with his current 24 points.

The reward, Sadler believes, is potentially having a horse ideally prepared for the rigors of the Derby and the Triple Crown.

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But first Candy Boy has to run well on Saturday in the Grade 1, $1 million Santa Anita Derby. If he does, Candy Boy would head to Louisville as one of the elite contenders for this year’s Derby. If he’s as flat as Cairo Prince was last Saturday, a Derby start would be in doubt.

“We knew it was risky, but we thought this was in the best interests of the horse, and that comes first,” Sadler said Wednesday. “The spacing works if you go into it from this perspective – is your goal with the Kentucky Derby trying to win it, or just trying to get there?

“If we get unlucky in the race, it is what it is. But we felt going into the year that this was the best plan. If he belongs, he should be one-two, and that should get him there.”

Sadler’s comments illustrate a truism of the points system Churchill Downs now uses to determine the field for the Derby should more than the maximum 20 horses enter – it is performance based. Run well in your final prep, and you’re in, as with Florida Derby winner Constitution, who entered that race with zero points and emerged with 100. Run poorly in your final prep, and maybe you don’t belong anyway.

Candy Boy has improved with every one of his races. He took four starts to finally defeat maidens, then jumped up with an outstanding second-place finish behind Shared Belief, the subsequent division champion, in the CashCall Futurity to end his 2-year-old campaign.

It was after that race that Sadler and Searing decided to run him next in the Robert Lewis Stakes on Feb. 8, which was worth 10 points to the winner, and bypass the San Felipe Stakes on March 8, which was worth 50 points to the winner, and give him a brief freshening for the Santa Anita Derby.

Cairo Prince had a similar schedule at Gulfstream. He won the Holy Bull, skipped the Fountain of Youth, and was pointed to the Florida Derby, a race in which he was the heavy favorite.

The Santa Anita Derby looks like a tougher field than in the Florida Derby. Candy Boy, who has 10 qualifying points, won’t be the favorite, with that spot taken by San Felipe winner California Chrome (50 points). The field also includes Hoppertunity (55 points), the winner of the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn last month. On the Derby Watch future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form ’s national handicapper, those are three of the top six current choices for the Derby.

[Santa Anita Derby Day: Get PPs, watch Saturday's card live]

This is the second year Churchill Downs has used a points system, after relying on graded stakes earnings from 1986-2012. Under the old system, Cairo Prince would be in the Derby field, having banked significant cash by winning the Holy Bull and Nashua, and finishing second in the Remsen. But so would Rise Up, who won the Delta Downs Jackpot and was last in the Louisiana Derby.

The new points system greatly de-emphasizes 2-year-old racing, and puts a premium on races closest to the Derby. The second round of spring preps are worth five times the amount of the first round of preps, and the final round of major preps are worth 10 times the first round and twice the second.

The horses it potentially benefits are lightly raced horses who get good at the right time. While the money Constitution earned in the Florida Derby would have put him in the Derby field under the old system, too, the points system makes it easier for a horse like him to catch a horse like Cairo Prince, who has a big head start on earnings.

Constitution began racing earlier this year, and won a maiden and an allowance race before the Florida Derby. Social Inclusion, who runs in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on Saturday, and Bayern, scheduled to run in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn on April 12, have similar resumes. If they run first or second, the minimum number of points needed to make this year’s Derby will increase, making it harder for a horse like Cairo Prince to make the field.

“We’ve got one shot at it,” said Bob Baffert, the trainer of Bayern. “He’s got to win or run second.”

Owing to late defections, it took just 10 points to get into the Kentucky Derby last year. Perhaps that will happen this year. But relying on a one-year sample size would get one thrown out of a beginning statistics course. Barring numerous defections, the cutoff point should be much higher this year.

◗ Candy Boy drew post 6 in a field of eight that was entered on Wednesday. The field, from the rail out, is Rprettyboyfloyd, Friendswith K Mill, Hoppertunity, Big Tire, California Chrome, Candy Boy, Schoolofhardrocks, and Dublin Up. Jon White of Santa Anita made California Chrome the 6-5 morning-line favorite, with Candy Boy next at 9-5. Hoppertunity is the third choice at 3-1. No one else is less than 10-1.