01/27/2011 3:51PM

New signposts along road to Kentucky Derby

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Barbara D. Livingston
Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Uncle Mo is scheduled for his first breeze of his year on Sunday.

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. − So big is the Todd Pletcher empire here at the Palm Meadows training center that it takes not one, not two, but three barns to house all of his horses. Barn 11 is where Pletcher’s office is, Barn 12 is just across a horse path to the north, and a little farther north is Barn 0, reflecting a healthy respect for triskaidekaphobia.

That’s a lot of territory for Pletcher and his coterie of assistants to cover every morning, but only steps from Pletcher’s office is where much of the attention will be focused in coming months. In the stall closest to his office is Brethren, the 3-year-old half-brother to Super Saver, who last year brought Pletcher his first victory in the Kentucky Derby. In the adjacent stall is Uncle Mo, the powerfully built colt whose unbeaten season last year, when he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male, has left him the ante-post favorite for this year’s Kentucky Derby.

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Derby, Derby, Derby. It will be topic number one for the next three-plus months. Now that 2010 is in the rear-view mirror, the Eclipse Awards have been handed out, and the overzealous fans of Blame and Zenyatta have retreated to neutral corners, racing begins its long march to the first Saturday in May, which this year falls as late as it can, on May 7. That’s a lot of time to debate the merits of the leading contenders, parse the nuances of trips in key preps, and pore over pedigrees, when all anyone really needed to do three of the last four years was simply see whom Calvin Borel was riding.

It seems no piece of minutiae is too small. For all of racing’s much-discussed issues, the Kentucky Derby retains a hold like no other. Interest, as measured by ontrack attendance on Derby Day and keystrokes per blog, never has been higher. The race, though, is over in two minutes. The many twists and turns along that road to the Derby are what captivate.

That road never has the same signposts from one year to the next. Be it purse earnings, the dates of key prep races, or track surfaces, those with Derby contenders always need to be cognizant of the latest changes. This year, as always, there are plenty.

MONEY

There are a maximum of 20 spots in the Derby starting gate, and the explanation for who gets them is very simple − they go to those with the most money. Earnings in graded stakes races remain the criterion for entry if more than 20 horses enter the Derby, which has happened the last six years. No distinction is made between money earned at age 2 or 3 or between money earned at Delta Downs or Churchill Downs. With tracks pouring money into those races and more races reaching graded status, opportunities abound.

Racing’s stimulus package is stakes for 2-year-olds in the fall and 3-year-olds in the spring. In the fall, there’s $1 million in the Delta Downs Jackpot at Delta Downs and $750,000 in the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park, in addition to the $2 million in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Though the cutoff point for entry to the Derby is certain to rise because of the overall cash infusion, the winners of those races − Gourmet Dinner, Comma to the Top, and Uncle Mo − have all but guaranteed themselves starting berths in the Derby.

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“That’s a long ways off, but as far as earnings go, I think we’re in,” Peter Miller, the trainer of Comma to the Top, said after the CashCall Futurity.

Although Hawthorne Race Course announced this week that it would reduce the purse of the Grade 3 Illinois Derby by 50 percent, from $500,000 to $250,000, most other tracks such as Santa Anita, Gulfstream Park, and Tampa Bay Downs have enriched their Derby preps this year.

“The increase in purse money is good for everybody,” Pletcher said. “They’re tough races. They deserve more money. With graded earnings paramount to get in, it becomes even more important.”

At Santa Anita, the Santa Anita Derby is worth $1 million, an increase of $250,000 from last year. Other stakes such as the Robert Lewis and San Felipe have been bumped to $250,000.

“If you win one of these meaningful preps, your horse should have a better chance of getting in,” said Rick Hammerle, the racing secretary at Santa Anita.

Following a common business mantra these days, Santa Anita truly did more with less.

“We consolidated our program,” said Mike Harlow, Santa Anita’s director of racing. “We put more money in the existing races, eliminated the San Rafael, and put the Sham in that spot. We used to have two different sets of races heading to the Santa Anita Derby. I’m not sure we could do that with the inventory we have now.”

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At Gulfstream Park, the Holy Bull has been raised from $150,000 to $400,000, the Fountain of Youth from $250,000 to $400,000, and the Florida Derby, like the Santa Anita Derby, from $750,000 to $1 million.

“We want the best 3-year-olds looking at this program,” said Tim Ritvo, the former trainer who is now the vice president of racing on the East Coast for Gulfstream’s parent company, MI  Developments. “We wanted to build up the series. We wanted to leave our mark. All the championship horses on the East Coast should be here.”

An added incentive to the Santa Anita and Gulfstream races is the Preakness 5.5, which offers bonuses of $5 million to the owner and $500,000 to the trainer of a horse who can win the Preakness Stakes on May 21 and two earlier preps at MI Development tracks.

To do it, a horse must win one of the first legs − the Holy Bull, Fountain of Youth, Robert Lewis, San Felipe, or the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields − then add either the Florida Derby or Santa Anita Derby before the Preakness.

That would make the Preakness a potentially far more lucrative race than the Derby. But not one trainer interviewed for this story said the bonus would make him point for the Preakness at the expense of the Derby − “It’s hard enough to win one of these races without trying to win two or three,” Pletcher said − but the enhanced purses of those preps alone was cause for celebration.

“It’s enticing,” said Nick Zito a two-time winner of the Kentucky Derby. “This should be a premier meet. Florida is the place to be in the winter time, and Palm Meadows is one of the best training tracks in America.”

At Tampa Bay Downs, the Tampa Bay Derby is $350,000, a $50,000 increase from one year ago, and that race’s major prep, the Sam Davis, is worth $225,000, though $25,000 of the Sam Davis purse is earmarked for Florida-breds.

As of now, it looks like Uncle Mo will make his 2011 debut in the Tampa Bay Derby on March 12.

“We’re very excited about that,” said Allison De Luca, the director of racing and racing secretary at Tampa Bay Downs. “Todd has always used our races. It fits in great if he wants to go to New York after that.”

DISTANCE

Indeed, Pletcher has sent the likes of Any Given Saturday, Bluegrass Cat, Limehouse, and, of course, Super Saver to Tampa in recent years. “It’s a good place to get ready,” he said.

The alluring aspect of Tampa is that it can card main-track races at the popular distance of 1 1/16 miles, the distance of the Tampa Bay Derby.

No track has benefited more from Gulfstream’s expansion in circumference to 1 1/8 miles than Tampa, which has seen a significant increase in the quality of 3-year-olds heading through there in recent years. At Gulfstream, one-mile races are around one turn, and the next distance that can be run is 1 1/8 miles, around two turns, with a fairly brief run to the first turn.

“The Tampa Bay Derby makes the most sense for Uncle Mo from a timing perspective, and the distance,” Pletcher said.

Brethren and Rogue Romance, the third-place finisher in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile for Ken McPeek, could end up in the Sam Davis.

But for Bill Mott, Gulfstream’s program might very well suit To Honor and Serve, the Remsen Stakes winner. Mott said the Fountain of Youth, like the Remsen at 1 1/8 miles, is a “possible first start.”

The parlor game to watch there is who will ride To Honor and Serve. John Velazquez rode Uncle Mo and To Honor and Serve last year, but he is expected to commit to Uncle Mo. A feeding frenzy of agents is already descending upon Mott.

The one-turn mile of the Holy Bull is expected to attract Dialed In, Gourmet Dinner, and Mucho Macho Man. It had been seen by Richard Dutrow Jr. as the perfect starting point for Boys At Tosconova, the runner-up to Uncle Mo in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but Dutrow announced Wednesday that Boys At Tosconova will skip the race.

DATES

The Florida Derby for years was held at least six weeks before the Kentucky Derby, and that afforded trainers the opportunity to have another prep − usually in the Blue Grass, Arkansas Derby, or Wood Memorial − before heading to Churchill Downs.

It was with much controversy that the date of the Florida Derby was moved to five weeks out in 2006, but after Barbaro won the Florida Derby and then the Kentucky Derby, concern evaporated. Two years later, Big Brown won both races, again five weeks apart.

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Despite that run of success, the Florida Derby last year was moved to six weeks out. Leaping into that void was the Louisiana Derby, which claimed the spot five weeks from the Derby. This year, though, the calendar was unkind to Fair Grounds. Because its meet must end in late March, and because the Kentucky Derby is at its latest possible date, the Louisiana Derby had no choice but to be placed six weeks out from Derby Day.

Ritvo and his cohorts righted a previous administration’s wrong. The Florida Derby is back five weeks out from the Kentucky Derby.

“The consensus from trainers was that five weeks was better, that five weeks worked,” Ritvo said. “We started there, then worked backwards to schedule the Fountain of Youth and Holy Bull.”

So the Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby basically have swapped dates each of the last two years.

“Five weeks is much more adequate,” said Zito, who won last year’s Florida Derby with Ice Box. “I had to train the heck out of him for six weeks.”

Added Pletcher: “I like five weeks. I was in favor of keeping it at five weeks beforehand. But those things can vary from year to year. Sometimes you have a horse who might only need four weeks, sometimes he might need six. But five seems to have worked well for quite a few horses.”

One interesting twist to this year’s Florida Derby is that it will be run on a Sunday, April  3, whereas almost every other significant Derby prep is run on a Saturday. Ritvo had several well thought-out reasons for making it a Sunday.

“There’s a lot of things people don’t think about. Jockeys, for instance,” he said. “That time of year, there’s big stakes everywhere on Saturdays. By having the race on a Sunday, all the top jocks should be available that day. And in our mind, the race will stand alone nationally that day. We’re going to make a festival weekend out of it, with the Gulfstream Park Oaks for fillies on Saturday and the Florida Derby on Sunday.”

DIRT

The other significant change to this year’s Derby trail is that Santa Anita divorced itself from synthetic surfaces after a rocky, three-year marriage and has returned to dirt. The upshots are profound.

For starters, trainer Steve Asmussen sent a string of horses to Santa Anita with his top assistant, Scott Blasi, and already they have had an impact, winning the Sham Stakes earlier this month with Tapizar. Iroquois winner Astrology is also at Santa Anita.

“The series here is ideal,” Asmussen said. “You can stay around two turns. It was a combination of things that brought us here − the stable we have, going to back to dirt. It aligned. It made sense.”

Most significantly, though, horses based in Southern California will not have to leave town before the Kentucky Derby to see if they can handle dirt. The last three years, that was a guess. In that time, the best Derby performance by a California-based runner was the distant second-place finish of Pioneerof the Nile behind Mine That Bird in 2009. That was the only in-the-money finish of a California-based horse out of the nine possible win, place, and show spots in the Derby from 2008 to 2010.

Now the Santa Anita program should be a better Derby barometer for the leading locally based runners, such as Astrology, Clubhouse Ride, Comma to the Top, Indian Winter, J P’s Gusto, and Tapizar.

“There’s no reason to leave California now. You don’t have to ship,” said trainer Bob Baffert, a three-time winner of the Derby whose Derby hopefuls include Jaycito and The Factor.

“I’ve always been impressed with the way California horses looked when they got off the bus at the Derby,” Asmussen said. “We came out here to give them the chance to be all they can be.”

KENTUCKY DERBY 137
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