LITTLE ROCK — In the graded earnings days of thoroughbred racing , trainer Bob Baffert would be making Kentucky Derby plans for Super Ninety Nine, confident the smashing winner of the $300,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park had done enough to secure one of the 20 spots in the starting gate at Churchill Downs.
Not this year and that’s a good thing for racing fans and racetracks. Beginning this week, the points at stake in Derby prep races go up, resulting in more solid fields and more hotly contested events from Florida to California and points in between. For instance, 10 3-year-olds signed on to face the Todd Pletcher-trained Violence, one of the Derby favorites, on Saturday at Gulfstream Park and a full field of 14 is entered that same day at New Orleans.
Most 3-year-olds have only two more opportunities to secure points prior to the May 4 Derby which means the seven 100-point races, including the Arkansas Derby on April 13, should be deep with desperate contenders. That, in turn, is more fun for casual fans and more challenging for handicappers.
Since there is no history on the minimum points required to get into the Derby, my guesstimate is 40 points — the reward for second in a 100-point race — will be the magic number.
The races this weekend in Florida and Louisiana are the first to offer 50 points for a victory. Before that, about 20 races, including the Southwest, rewarded the winner with 10 points. A year ago, Super Ninety Nine would have already banked $200,000 in graded money, including $180,000 from the Southwest on Monday. Optimizer made the 20-horse Derby field last year with barely $184,000 in graded earnings. Considering that threshold and with all the graded money events available for 2-year-olds and during the first weeks of the 3-year-old year, a half-dozen or more would already be Derby-eligible.
Instead, no horse is safe. Super Ninety Nine is one of 11 with 10 points and the two leaders have 24 each.
Pletcher and Baffert have to do the most juggling, spotting their horses around the country while avoiding running stablemates in the same race.
Pletcher is expected to start Violence this weekend, Overanalyze in New York on March 2, Verrazano at Tampa Bay on March 9, Shanghai Bobby in the Florida Derby on March 30, and Revolutionary in New York on April 6. He is considering the March 16 Rebel at Oaklawn for Capo Bastone, noting the race is one month after the colt’s 2013 debut. Running in the Rebel means the colt could come back a month later in Arkansas or Kentucky if still in need of points.
The races for Shanghai Bobby and Revolutionary are so late in the spring, it’s make-good-or-else. Pletcher’s others would have enough time for another race.
Apparently, Baffert’s only commitments are to run Code West in New Orleans this week and Flashback in California on March 9. Trained by Baffert, Manando and Carving did not finish in the money last week in the El Camino Real Derby. Certainly, the timing is right for either-or to travel to Arkansas for the Rebel.
Baffert has done the bait and switch before. Last year, he won both divisions of the Southwest with Secret Circle and Castaway and then doubled up with Secret Circle in the Rebel. After that, he sent first teamer Bodemeister, who was so impressive winning the Arkansas Derby that he was favored in the Kentucky Derby, where he finished second.
The points system is on track to accomplish the goal of creating interest and drama, particularly in the six weeks prior to the Derby.
When the dust settles, Churchill Downs will review the 30-plus races and the points available. Tweaks are certain. Hopefully, they will be minor.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.