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New rules of the Road
For all the places they went, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby never traveled down the Road to the Kentucky Derby. Even if they had, they would find it unrecognizable these days. The path to America's most famous race has seen unprecedented changes, the scope of which hardly could have been anticipated a mere decade ago.
The dates of key Derby prep races, such as the Florida Derby, have changed to allow for more time between the last prep and Derby Day. The distances of those preps, such as the Louisiana Derby, have changed. The expansion of Gulfstream Park from one mile in circumference to 1 1/8 miles altered the track's stakes program and helped boost the program across the state of Florida at Tampa Bay Downs, which has the ability, unlike Gulfstream, to run two-turn, 1 1/16-mile races, a popular distance.
A track used for the final two preps by a Derby winner in the last decade has closed (go to the head of the class if you said "Sportsman's Park" and "War Emblem"). Gone, too - at least for now - is Hialeah, home of the Flamingo Stakes. Tracks whose purse money is subsidized by casinos have made those places major players; this year, the Sunland Park Derby, a graded race for the first time, will be the second-richest Derby prep in North America.
Graded stakes money often determines the 20-horse lineup for the Derby, and the amount available today is astronomical. In 2000, there were 26 graded stakes on dirt for 3-year-olds between Jan. 1 and Derby Day, worth $8,134,400. This year, there are 30 main-track races worth $10,675,000. That does not include the Mega Millions jackpot for the United Arab Emirates Derby, which counts just as much as any other race toward the critical graded-stakes earnings.
The biggest wrinkle of all might be the advent of synthetic racing surfaces, not even a blip on the radar a decade ago. The $2 million UAE Derby will be run on a synthetic surface for the first time this year. And of the 30 main-track prep races this year in the United States, 10 will be run on synthetic surfaces at Golden Gate, Keeneland, Santa Anita, and Turfway.
"We do know one thing," said Darren Rogers, the publicity director at Churchill Downs. "The Kentucky Derby will be run on the first Saturday in May."
At 1 1/4 miles. On natural dirt. But how trainers go about getting there has become far more challenging.
"It's complicated," said trainer Nick Zito, a two-time Derby winner.
FEWER STARTS, LONGER REST
:: This year's road:
Many of the so-called Derby rules - the long-standing fundamentals to predict which horses could win the Derby - have been shattered in recent years. The one that has fallen the hardest and fastest is the time between a final prep and the Derby. There was a time when horses would run in the Derby Trial four days before the race, or the Blue Grass when it was nine days out, or the Wood Memorial when it was two weeks out. Few trainers dared give their horse a final prep more than four weeks before the Derby, and not since Needles in 1956 had anyone succeeded with such a maneuver - until last decade.
In 2005, Gulfstream Park moved the Florida Derby five weeks before the Derby, which was considered no man's land. The next year, Barbaro won the Florida Derby and five weeks later the Kentucky Derby. Big Brown pulled off the same parlay in 2008. Last year, Mine That Bird won the Derby after having his final prep five weeks out at Sunland Park. See a trend here?
"Time is on our side," said Richard Dutrow Jr., the trainer of Big Brown. "I love that I have time between races. You can train up to a race, and they can fire bullets. Five weeks is great. Six weeks is better."
As such, Dutrow applauds the move of the Florida Derby from five weeks out to, this year, six weeks out, March 20. The Florida Derby relocation was part of the domino effect created when Fair Grounds, which is owned by Churchill Downs Inc., decided to move the Louisiana Derby from seven weeks out to five weeks out, on March 27.
"We thought that if there was ever an opportunity to become the premier Derby prep, we should pursue it aggressively," said Eric Halstrom, the vice president and general manager of Fair Grounds. "We're owned by the same company. Our surface is similar to that at Churchill Downs. When we were seven weeks out, horses needed another prep. Judging from the reaction we got from horsemen, and our list of nominations, I can't imagine that this will not turn out to be the right move over time."
After Fair Grounds moved the Louisiana Derby, Gulfstream Park moved the Florida Derby six weeks out.
"We avoided conflict with Fair Grounds and any potential media competition with the Dubai races, which are also on March 27," said Ken Dunn, the president and general manager of Gulfstream Park. "This way, you can either train up to the Derby or, if you need another race, come back in something like the Blue Grass or Arkansas Derby. Whether the race is six weeks out or five weeks out should not make a difference."
But would Gulfstream have moved the Florida Derby if the Louisiana Derby did not poach the March 27 date?
"We probably would not have," Dunn said.
When Gulfstream moved the Florida Derby, Turfway Park subsequently decided to push its Lane's End Stakes from its original date this year of March 20 to March 27.
"Racing officials have become aware that trainers want more time," said trainer Todd Pletcher, an annual Derby participant. "I think moving the Louisiana Derby to five weeks out was a positive change. The Florida Derby, I wouldn't have changed. They had two Derby winners come out of that race in the last four years. The system worked. I'm of the mindset that if it works, don't change."
Trainer Ken McPeek said he prefers a shorter horizon.
"I like three or four weeks," he said. "One reason I think horses need more time is because of using Lasix. It takes 25 pounds of fluid off of them. That's a lot of water weight to replenish in a short period of time. That's why I think it's been so difficult for a horse to win the Triple Crown. I think Lasix should be eliminated from all Grade 1 races in North America. The sooner we do it, the more respect the world will have for our top races."
The Derby field is capped at 20 runners. The last six years, and eight times in the last 10 years, at least 20 horses have entered the race. When that happens, the field is determined by earnings in graded stakes races; the cutoff point is usually around $125,000. Regardless, the trainer of a Derby prospect has to worry about conditioning his horse for the most demanding race of his life while being mindful of how much money is in the till.
This year, trainer Bob Baffert is at both ends of the spectrum. He's in the clear with Lookin at Lucky, who won the CashCall Futurity and already has more than $1.2 million in graded stakes earnings. But he has several lightly raced horses, such as Take Control and Tiz Chrome, who need to make a cash call.
"Before, you just had to worry about getting a horse good enough to run in the Derby," Baffert said. "Now you've got to make sure you earn some money to go to the Derby. You need that graded stakes money, and you need a good horse. You look at a race like the Sunland Derby. Win that, and you're in."
Indeed, with an $800,000 purse, the $480,000 first-prize money of the Sunland Derby puts the winner in the Derby field. So, too, the winners of the other rich final preps. There are nine Derby preps worth at least $500,000, all run six weeks or less before the Derby. And that does not include the UAE Derby. Nor does it include money earned in 2-year-old races.
Zito would like to see that money spread more equitably.
"There should be more preps but less money for them," Zito said. "You need more opportunities leading up to these bigger races. If, right now, you've got a horse who's only won a maiden race, unless you run first or second in the Wood Memorial or the Arkansas Derby, you're in trouble. The plus factor is that there's so many big races just a few weeks out, so you've got some chances. It's much harder, unless you've got a horse who was a good 2-year-old. Then you've got it made."
Added McPeek, "Even if you've got a horse who just has a maiden win, you've still got time to make two different Derby preps."
"Your horse has time to make graded money," he said. "If he can't do it in those two preps, he probably doesn't belong, anyway."
In terms of purse money for the Derby, all graded stakes are created equal. Though the Sunland Derby is only a Grade 3 race, its purse makes it count more than Grade 1 races such as the Santa Anita Derby, Wood, and Blue Grass Stakes, all better known, yet all worth $750,000 apiece. Races for 2-year-olds, such as the Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs, count just as much as races for 3-year-olds. And a 3-year-old filly conceivably can slip through the back door by running exclusively in graded races restricted to fillies while never facing males until Derby Day.
"Not a day goes by that we don't look at our system," said Donnie Richardson, the senior vice president, racing, for Churchill Downs. "I think the outside world thinks we are sitting on our hands, but we're not. If someone can show us a viable way to change it, we're not opposed to changing anything. But the way it is now, everybody knows what it takes to get in. What we have now seems to work.
"There's been talk about going to a point system, having Grade 1 races count more than Grade 3 races, but we've never come up with a point system that's an improvement," Richardson said.
Richardson said Churchill keeps a keen eye on the purse of the UAE Derby. The prize money of that race could, in theory, be raised and then disbursed in a manner that allows numerous horses exiting it to get into the Derby.
"That causes us a lot of sleepless nights," he said. "But we have no control over the amount of money put into the race in Dubai. It is independent from us."
Richardson did say, though, that treating 2-year-old money the same as 3-year-old money is something Churchill is evaluating more seriously.
"We may have to change that at some point in time," he said.
The repositioning of the Louisiana Derby from seven weeks out to five weeks out was concurrent with the distance of the race being extended from 1 1/16 miles to 1 1/8 miles. That makes it the latest race to have undergone a change in its traditional distance in recent years.
No place has been affected more than Gulfstream Park, where the change in the main track's circumference eliminated two-turn races at one mile and any race at 1 1/16 miles. That, in turn, has made races such as the Sam Davis and Tampa Bay Derby, both at Tampa Bay, far more attractive than they were a decade ago.
"You have the mile-and-a-sixteenth option and the two-turn option at Tampa, as opposed to having to go in either a one-turn mile or a two-turn mile and an eighth at Gulfstream," Pletcher said. "It's hard to analyze these things at Gulfstream, because every horse's needs are different. Going from seven-eighths to a mile to a mile and an eighth might be great for one horse one year and might not work out for another horse the next year.
"I don't think each track's layout works for every horse, but you're only a van ride or a plane ride from any race you want," Pletcher said. "There's so many options."
Zito, with horses such as Andromeda's Hero and Sun King, was one of the first to use Tampa as a Derby launching pad. Three years ago, trainer Carl Nafzger took Street Sense to Tampa for the first of his two preps before a victory in the Derby.
"With the old configuration of the track at Gulfstream, they had a beautiful progression," Zito said. "Strike the Gold in 1991 ran seven-eighths and then a mile and a sixteenth in allowance races at Gulfstream, then ran second in the Florida Derby, then had time to go to the Blue Grass and win that before winning the Derby."
Dutrow said he is fond of the current alignment at Gulfstream.
"For what we're looking for, it couldn't be better," Dutrow said. "I'm very happy the Holy Bull is a one-turn mile. And the Florida Derby situation suits us perfectly."
Santa Anita has six graded stakes on the main track and offers a schedule to accommodate horses who want to remain around two turns following their 2-year-old year, dip back to seven furlongs to kick things off, or jump in in March.
"Santa Anita has the best program," Zito said.
Santa Anita, however, has a synthetic surface, Pro-Ride. Synthetic surfaces have complicated preparations for the Derby. Theoretically, the greatest benefit of a synthetic surface, Baffert said, is that a trainer never has to have his schedule affected by foul weather. The downside, according to Pletcher, is that "you can lead a horse over there thinking he's live, and you go away not believing he ran that badly."
"It leaves you scratching your head a lot of time," Pletcher said.
"Street Sense got beat in the Blue Grass [by Dominican] and then beat that horse 50,000 lengths in the Derby," Zito said. "The synthetics are an awful situation. A state-of-the-art dirt surface, with an excellent base, is wonderful. You can't convince me that synthetics have helped our cause. It takes an exceptional horse to like both.
"If a horse doesn't take to dirt, you're up against it," he said. "Look at Lookin at Lucky. He's number one right now. But number one could become number six on dirt. Right or wrong? He's got to start all over again. How can you give up that advantage? It's a very tough situation. The whole thing throws in a monkey wrench."
Zito is a three-time winner of the Blue Grass, when it was run on dirt. Now that Keeneland has a synthetic surface, Polytrack, Zito said he would only run in the Blue Grass "for the money."
"But I would have no aspirations of winning the Derby," he said, "unless the horse is a freak."
Pletcher said he would avoid the Blue Grass or Santa Anita Derby if he thought a horse was superior on dirt. But he said a synthetic track can offer an appropriate intermediate step when trying to make a dirt horse out of a grass horse, such as with Cowboy Cal, who finished second in the 2008 Blue Grass.
"This year, I've got the Santa Anita Derby in the back of my mind for Interactif," Pletcher said of the third-place finisher in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. "He seems better on grass, but a track like Santa Anita's gives him a chance to step up. A few years ago, without the synthetics, I'd probably make him stay on the grass."
Making matters more challenging, Pletcher said, is that all synthetic surfaces are not the same.
"Each one is different," he said. "Just because a horse handles Keeneland does not mean he'll handle Santa Anita. On the synthetic tracks, you can make a nine-wide sweep, which is something you'd never dream of doing on traditional dirt. It brings in an unpredictable side that you don't want to experiment with with big horses in big races."
McPeek said he has found that you "need to have dirt works if you're going to prepare for a dirt race."
"You could work a half-dozen times at Keeneland and then you go to Churchill and find yourself a race short," he said.
It's the kind of thing that would cause McPeek to pull his hair out, but he's well past that point. He and his brethren have to constantly evolve to the rapid changes taking place for Derby preps.
"Everybody thinks there's some formula," Baffert said. "Here's the formula: First, you need a really good horse. Second, you need to keep him healthy. Then you need luck. You want to get your horse ready for the major preps. If you win one of the major preps, you've got a shot in the Derby."
* Handicapping roundups from Santa Anita, Gulfstream, Aqueduct, and Oaklawn
* Jay Privman's Q&A with trainer Christophe Clement
* David Grening on apprentice rider Angel Serpa
* Matt Hegarty examines Magna's settlement
* Marty McGee on Dogwood Stable and Aikenite
* Plus video analysis of the weekend's biggest stakes