04/15/2013 2:39PM

Kentucky Derby spots, points remain up for grabs

Coady Photography/Keeneland
Java’s War (4) racks up 100 Kentucky Derby eligibility points winning Saturday’s Blue Grass Stakes.

The Kentucky Derby is turning into the haves and the have little.

Victories on Saturday by Java’s War in the Blue Grass Stakes and Overanalyze in the Arkansas Derby brought to seven the number of horses with at least 100 points on the new system used by Churchill Downs to determine the field for the May 4 Derby, but the dropoff is precipitous after that, with as few as 20 points now likely enough to earn a starting berth this year.

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

Horses such as Uncaptured (30 points), Departing (20), Merit Man (20), and West Hills Giant (20) likely would have had enough points to get into the Derby, but their connections are bypassing the race, allowing horses farther down the list a chance to get in. Departing heads the Illinois Derby on Saturday, and though the Illinois Derby was conspicuously cut out of the Derby points prep schedule by Churchill Downs, Departing likely could make the field if desired. But trainer Al Stall Jr. on Monday said there is “no chance” Departing would run in the Derby, regardless of how he performs Saturday.

Significantly, there are still two Derby preps to be run – the Coolmore Lexington Stakes on Saturday at Keeneland, and the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs on April 27 – and since both offer 20 points for first, the winners could earn starting berths in the Derby if their connections are so inclined.

The prospective Lexington field includes Cerro, who disappointed when he ran sixth in the Fountain of Youth behind Orb. Barry Irwin, the chief executive officer of the Team Valor syndicate which owns Cerro, said Monday that if “Cerro could actually get into the Derby by winning the Lexington, we would strongly consider it if we liked his race well enough.”

“It is more likely, however, that we would consider the Preakness because of the better timing,” Irwin added. “The Fountain of Youth knocked him for a loop, and it took him longer to recover because he was pressing a very fast pace. He has recovered well and has two nice works here at Keeneland and we expect him to perform up to his best level. But coming back in two weeks would only be considered if a winning effort on Saturday didn’t poop him out. He is a big, strong colt, but we have seen what a hard race does to him.”

As for the Derby Trial, prospective runners there include Titletown Five, who is co-owned by Louisville resident Paul Hornung and trained by D. Wayne Lukas, and Sunbean, who had a dreadful trip in the Louisiana Derby and since has been transferred by owner Evelyn Benoit from Stall to trainer Mike Maker.

The points only come into play if more than the maximum 20 horses enter the Derby. If there are 20 or fewer, all entrants run. Under the new system, fillies can earn points only if they run in open races, not races restricted to fillies. So, conceivably, a horse like Dreaming of Julia, the runaway winner of the Gulfstream Park Oaks, could make the Derby field if the race doesn’t oversubscribe. But trainer Todd Pletcher on Monday said that “right now, there are no plans” to head in that direction.

Pletcher said the only way that would even be considered was if there were “major defections” from the prospective Derby field. But he reiterated that the Kentucky Oaks on May 3 is the goal for Dreaming of Julia, as well as his filly Unlimited Budget.

Pletcher has seen most of his Derby hopes fall into place, even with champion Shanghai Bobby and highly regarded Violence getting knocked out this spring. Pletcher already qualified Verrazano (Wood Memorial) and Revolutionary (Louisiana Derby), and on Saturday added three more Derby starters – Overanalyze, as well as Palace Malice and Charming Kitten, who finished second and third in the Blue Grass.

“Everybody seems to have come out of their races well,” Pletcher said.

Palace Malice had just 10 points going into the Blue Grass, but his runner-up finish was worth 40 points. Charming Kitten earned 20 points, but under the tiebreaker – earnings in unrestricted stakes – he’s currently 20th on the list. In addition, there are a couple of horses above Charming Kitten – Super Ninety Nine and Falling Sky – who could defect, so the Lexington and Derby Trial results are unlikely to keep him out.

No Derby rider has yet been named for Charming Kitten. He was ridden in the Blue Grass by Joe Bravo, who won the Spiral on Derby starter Black Onyx.

Palace Malice will be ridden in the Derby by Mike Smith, Pletcher said Monday. Garrett Gomez rode Palace Malice in the Blue Grass, but he is already committed to Vyjack for the Derby.

Verrazano and Revolutionary arrived at Churchill Downs over the weekend and are scheduled to have two works preceding the Derby, one on each of the next two Sundays, Pletcher said.

Calvin Borel on Monday was named to ride Revolutionary, reuniting the team that won the 2010 Derby with Super Saver – Borel, Pletcher, and owner WinStar Farm. Borel is a three-time Derby winner. The mount on Revolutionary became open when Javier Castellano opted to ride Normandy Invasion.

Trainer Ken McPeek saw two of his horses earn Derby berths on Saturday – Java’s War and Frac Daddy, who gleaned 40 points for his second-place finish in the Arkansas Derby.

As of now, Pletcher, McPeek, and Lukas (Oxbow and Will Take Charge) will have multiple entries in the Derby.

By contrast, trainer Bob Baffert has seen his number of Derby prospects plummet in recent weeks. Govenor Charlie is certain for the race, and though Baffert has yet to officially rule out Super Ninety Nine (30 points), Den’s Legacy (20), or Code West (20), all are unlikely to run.

“We’ll know by next week,” Baffert said Monday, the day before Govenor Charlie and Midnight Lucky, his unbeaten Kentucky Oaks contender, were scheduled to fly to Kentucky from California.

– additional reporting by David Grening, Marty McGee, and Mary Rampellini