01/17/2013 4:10PM

Road to the Kentucky Derby has a new map

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Tom Keyser
Shanghai Bobby won three graded stakes as a 2-year-old, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but is not assured a spot in the Kentucky Derby.

Shanghai Bobby has won the Hopeful Stakes, the Champagne Stakes, and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and is the overwhelming favorite to be named champion 2-year-old of 2012 when the Eclipse Awards are held Saturday, Jan. 19, at Gulfstream Park. Yet in terms of eligibility for the May 4 Kentucky Derby, this accomplished, decorated colt is a mere 20 points in front of horses who have never even raced.

After more than 25 years of using graded stakes earnings as the criterion for entry to oversubscribed fields for the Derby, Churchill Downs has switched to a system based on points, one that discounts 2-year-old form and turf races, eliminates sprints and races restricted to fillies, and puts a premium on the final two rounds of Derby preps, beginning in late February.

Cash is no longer king. It’s a new world, with nuances that trainers with Derby prospects are seeking to comprehend.

“The approach I’m taking is that I’m trying not to worry too much about it,” said Todd Pletcher, who trains Shanghai Bobby and several other top Derby contenders, such as Overanalyze and Violence. “You have to manage your horse the way you normally would and hope you earn enough points to get in.”

That said, Pletcher – who won the Derby with Super Saver in 2010 – realizes that a subpar race close to the Derby could be catastrophic.

“You certainly don’t want that if you don’t have enough points,” Pletcher said. “A lot of horses have flopped in their final Derby prep and gone on to win the Derby. The key is to have enough points before the flop.”

[MORE: Kentucky Derby prep schedule | Kentucky Derby point standings]

Under the new system, the Florida Derby is one of seven races offering the maximum amount of points to the Derby. Those races are worth 170 points, with 100 to the winner, 40 to second, 20 to third, and 10 to fourth. In years past, Pletcher said he figured about $200,000 in graded earnings usually was needed to make the Derby, which is restricted to 20 runners. He thinks the equivalent now will be about 40 points. But like everyone else, he’s guessing.

“The way the program was set up before, if you finished 1-2-3 in that final round of preps, and you had earned something else along the way, you were in, and it might be close to the same now,” Pletcher said. “If the same group of horses is earning points, you might have six to eight with 200 points, and then a big drop off. It’s hard to get a line on what the magic point number will be, the number that will be what $200,000 in earnings was before. I’m guessing 40 points or so, but I don’t know.”

No one does.

“I think it’s going to take a couple of years for trainers to fully grasp this,” said Rick Hammerle, racing secretary at Santa Anita, whose Santa Anita Derby is one of the races offering 100 points to the winner.

The most significant change is that not a single spot in the Derby field is already taken. In the past, the winners of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, CashCall Futurity, and Delta Downs Jackpot would already have enough cash to make the Derby field. Now, because the final round of preps are so much more important, there is the likelihood that many more trainers will point to those races, and their field sizes will swell.

“No question,” said Nick Zito, a two-time Derby winner. “If you want to participate in the Derby, you have to backload it. You have to be careful which prep you go in, because you could blow it all in one race.

“But if you win the Fountain of Youth,” Zito said, referring to one of eight Derby preps worth 50 points to the winner, “you’re probably in. If you get to Florida Derby Day without enough points, you could blow your chance. But if you run second in the Florida Derby, you’re probably in.”

The importance of the final round of prep races also might force trainers to think about shipping to a wider range of locales for opportunities to accumulate the most points.

“I think you will see some horses go west who normally would have stayed in the East,” Zito said.

“Before the Breeders’ Cup, there’s not a lot of movement with the 2-year-olds,” Hammerle said. “For the most part, the New York horses stay in New York, the Kentucky horses stay in Kentucky. I think this might encourage trainers to head somewhere else to take a shot at points.”

[DRF WEEKEND: History challenge, handicapping reports, horses to watch]

Having multiple Kentucky Derby prospects is a position that Pletcher has been in several times. Might he be more inclined to try to divide and conquer rather than have multiple runners in the same race?

“If that comes up, I’ll have a discussion with each individual owner,” he said. “You lay out the options – ‘Do you want to run against him, or run here or there?’ That part won’t be different. As a trainer, I always like to take as many shots as possible. Now maybe an owner might look and see he needs more points and adjust.”

The flip side to having so much emphasis on the final round of preps is that awaiting those races could result in a large gamble. One false step, and you’re out. As of now, Shanghai Bobby is scheduled to run in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream on Jan. 26 and then the Florida Derby on March 30. Those will be his only opportunities to earn additional points. It’s a risk Pletcher has discussed with the Starlight Racing principals, Jack Wolf and Don Lucarelli.

“I’ve talked this over with them,” Pletcher said, “and if we don’t have enough points to get into the Derby, we’ll just go to the Preakness. Life goes on.”

Other trainers say they are thinking about sneaking in one more prep race to try to accumulate more points. As of now, trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. said he is thinking of sending out Gulfstream Park Derby winner Itsmyluckyday against Shanghai Bobby in the Holy Bull.

“If he wins the Holy Bull, is that enough?” Plesa said. “I don’t know. So I might have to run him more often than I’d prefer. Ideally, I’d like to run him twice more, including the Holy Bull. I think it’s important to have a fresh horse. But what’s ideal for my horse might not be what gets him into the Derby, so I have to sort through that.

“I don’t know why they messed with it to begin with,” Plesa said. “It worked fine for years. We were experienced with what needed to be done.”

Churchill made the decision to move from graded stakes earnings to a points system in large part to take control of its signature race, according to Darren Rogers, the track’s senior director of communications and media services and one of the architects of the new system.

[KENTUCKY DERBY NEWS ON TWITTER: Follow @DRFDerby for updates]

“We have an historic race, but we had little to no control over who gets in,” Rogers said. “We think this respects the old system, in terms of the importance of the major preps, and improves on it. It was not an easy process. But we’re happy and comfortable with the end result.”

Greater significance will be placed on current form. And emphasizing the final weeks of prep races, Rogers said, should help hold fan interest because the horses who run well in those races are the ones who will make up the Derby field.

“Our main focus is the 10-week Derby Championship Series that leads to the first Saturday in May,” he said. “This is a step in the right direction.”

No longer will a sprinter be able to glean graded earnings by staying in one-turn races until Derby Day, nor will a filly be able to accumulate graded earnings in races restricted to females, two flaws in the graded earnings era that have been eliminated. Sprinters and fillies can still try to make the Derby, but only by running against all comers in races at a mile or farther.

Those permutations could impact the pace of Derby preps and the Derby itself. A sprinter whose connections want to run in the Derby now has to test the Derby waters in a prep, potentially impacting the pace of that prep.

“That’s a good point,” Pletcher said. “A horse like Trinniberg couldn’t just run in the Bay Shore.”

And if a horse like that does not perform well in the prep and does not go on to the Derby, the Derby could unfold with a more moderate pace.

This is the first year of the new system, and Rogers emphasizes that it is only a step. The road to the Derby is likely to be adjusted for the 2014 race. There are plenty of suggestions on ways to improve the system. Bob Baffert, a three-time Derby winner, said that while the final rounds of preps basically are akin to the "Win and You’re In" program of the Breeders’ Cup, he wishes Churchill Downs would go further and have winners of those races get their entry fees paid, similar to the Breeders’ Cup.

Baffert said he is concerned that, by going to a points system, tracks in the future might be inclined to slightly reduce the purse money offered for their key preps.

“I don’t have a problem with them going to points as long as these $1 million races stay $1 million,” he said.

Pletcher said he would like to see the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile be worth more than races that serve as preps to it, such as the Breeders’ Futurity, Champagne, FrontRunner, and Grey.

“I said this before the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, so it’s not like I’m saying this because of Shanghai Bobby, but juvenile racing doesn’t carry enough weight, especially the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile,” Pletcher said. “The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner should not have to worry about accumulating more points.”

For now, though, he does.

“We’re constantly looking at tweaks − how do we make the road better?” Rogers said. “The goal is this − we’re trying to get the best field to go a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May.”