04/10/2013 3:40PM

Kentucky Derby's new numbers game an interesting exercise

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Tom Cooley Photography
Falling Sky (inside), here winning the Sam Davis at Tampa Bay Downs, will shoot for a share of the 170 Kentucky Derby qualifying points there for the taking in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby.

As an analyst with Goldman Sachs, James Covello spends his days poring over numbers, a discipline that has come in handy lately for another passion, being as Covello is co-owner of Falling Sky, one of the 3-year-olds whose participation in the May 4 Kentucky Derby will depend on two things – how he performs on Saturday in the Arkansas Derby, and where he stands on the overall points list.

[ARKANSAS DERBY: Get Oaklawn PPs, watch video previews]

Since Falling Sky won the Sam Davis at Tampa Bay Downs two months, ago, “There hasn’t been a day that’s gone by that I haven’t looked” at where Falling Sky stands on the points list, Covello said on a national teleconference earlier this week.

[DERBY WATCH: Top 20 contenders and video | Who's hot, who's not]

He’s not alone. Scoreboard-watching will reach its zenith over the next three weeks, but most notably this Saturday, because the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn and the Blue Grass at Keeneland both are worth 170 points overall, 100 points to the winner, under the system put in place this year by Churchill Downs to determine the Derby field if more than the maximum 20 horses enter.

[BLUE GRASS STAKES: Get Keeneland PPs, watch video previews]

Falling Sky, for instance, currently has 20 points, which puts him tied for 17th, but actually 19th when the tie-breaker, non-restricted stakes earnings, is factored in. Third place in the Blue Grass or Arkansas Derby is worth 20 points – and the last two Derby preps, the April 20 Lexington at Keeneland and the April 27 Derby Trial at Churchill Downs – are worth 20 points to the winner, so 20 points is a precarious position.

Those near the cutoff point certainly have been aided in recent weeks by defections of horses like Flashback (who had 70 points) and Hear the Ghost (50). Covello believes 40 points will be enough.

“If we finish in the top three, that should be enough points to get in,” Covello said. “Even the top four, which would give us 30 points, would put us on the bubble. But if we’re fourth, 15 lengths up the track, I don’t think we’d be too excited about going on to the Derby. You want to go into it the right way.”

There are numerous horses in the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby for whom Saturday’s performance is paramount. Of the 15 entered Wednesday in the Blue Grass – 14 can start – Uncaptured has the most points, 30. Java’s War has 22, West Hills Giant 20, Dynamic Sky 13, and Palace Malice has 10. They are the only horses in double figures. Yet the point value of the Blue Grass makes it possible for a horse to make a big leap right into the Derby with a one-two finish.

That’s something trainer Gary Contessa is hoping to accomplish with Rydilluc, who has yet to earn any points, but whose three-race win streak has made him the co-second choice, at 4-1, on the morning line of Keeneland’s Mike Battaglia.

“We wouldn’t be in the Blue Grass if we weren’t trying to make the Derby,” Contessa said. “If he runs one-two, we’re going to the Derby.”

The Arkansas Derby drew a field of 10, headed by Oxbow, currently 13th on the overall points list with 36. Other Arkansas Derby entrants in double figures are Den’s Legacy, with 20, and Overanalyze, with 10.

Yet the morning-line favorite is War Academy, who, like Rydilluc in the Blue Grass, has yet to earn any points.

Contessa, joking that he’s “not a mathematician,” did allow that “every trainer does some scoreboard-watching.” He said he’s “becoming more familiar” with the new points system, and likes it compared to the old system – which utilized graded stakes earnings – especially with the emphasis on races in the spring of the 3-year-old year, and a reduction in value for 2-year-old races.

“I like what it’s done with the preps. There are big fields for every one of these races,” Contessa said. “It looks like it’s accomplishing what it set out to accomplish.”

Covello is a mathematician. He said he likes the new system “a lot.”

“Even if it keeps me out,” Covello said.

One aspect that Covello cited as an improvement was requiring fillies to earn points in open races, as opposed to being able, under the graded stakes earnings system, to accumulate cash in races restricted to fillies.

“They should have to earn their way in,” Covello said, before specifically referencing Dreaming of Julia, who was a runaway winner of the Gulfstream Park Oaks two weeks ago on the same card as the Florida Derby. “Running against Live Lively” – the Gulfstream Oaks runner-up – “and Verrazano” – the Wood Memorial winner – “are two completely different animals,” Covello said.

“I think it’s a lot more interesting, with the focus on recency of form,” Covello said.

There are tweaks Covello believes need to be made. “There’s no good reason the Illinois Derby is not part of this,” he said, referring to a race Churchill Downs conspicuously did not include. Churchill Downs owns Arlington Park, which competes for race dates in the Chicago area with Hawthorne, the home of the Illinois Derby.

But, overall, “I think it’s a fabulous thing,” Covello said. “It’s made the Derby trail more exciting.”