Who still belongs on the 2014 Kentucky Derby Trail?

I’m forgetting where I first read the quote, but it was definitely in a book referencing the intracacies of handicapping. In describing the morning-line, the suggestion was made that the track linemaker gives every horse a certain place to weigh them out individually so that each horse, theoretically would finish in a dead-heat with each other.
The same comparison should be made of the Kentucky Derby race and the Derby Trail.
Ideally, 3YOs who have enough of a resume should be able to run in that most famous of races. But an examination of some of the prep races belie the idea that every winner or contender of a Derby prep really belongs in the top 25 in Derby points at all.

After reading about the possible defection of Dance With Fate upon taking 100 points and $ in winning the Blue Grass Stakes (a turf route, reminding you), there was some criticism about the decision, and it’s certainly well-founded. Why should the Blue Grass be a prep race when we all know that the KY Derby is a dirt route? And what of horses who have only run on surfaces other than dirt? They don’t truly deserve to be taking points away from other contenders when they place in races like the Blue Grass, let alone be on the Trail at all.

So what I attempt to do here is produce a de facto standard for horses who should run in the Derby. I’m not predicting Derby wins here but deciding on who should be in Louisville when the time comes, as well as who shouldn’t.

On top of that idea, I want to present a more graduated Derby trail based on earnings and points, given less weight to the 2YO campaign, as well as less for Derby preps that don’t reflect the Derby itself or have otherwise produced few Derby winners themselves. The track and its own class also must be considered, among other factors.
Here I’ll spell out the ideal variables for a true Derby contender:

Must have at least one race at 2YO
Must have a dirt route race at 3YO
Must have competed at the Graded level.
Must have been part of a 10+-horse field.
Nice to have: Any history racing at Churchilll.

Let’s go through the 37 horses that are still on the trail and see if any belong. The * goes to any horse that is still not committed to the race as of this typing.

California Chrome: (West Coast) Fully qualified upon winning the San Felipe. Since then, won the SA Derby.

Vicar’s in Trouble: (Gulf Coast) Fully qualified upon winning the LeComte. Since: 3rd in the Risen Star, 1st in the LA Derby.
*Dance With Fate: (West) On the borderline here. Finished 2nd in the Front Runner (G2, 8.5 furlongs) at 2YO. No dirt routes as 3YO, so truly this means he does NOT qualify.
Wicked Strong (NY, Southeast) : Fully qualified after his run in the Holy Bull. Since: 9th in a 75k allowance, then won the Wood Memorial.

Samraat (NY) qualified after running 2nd in the Wood Memorial last time out.

Danza (Various) has NOT qualified, as he has never faced anything larger than an 8-horse field.

Constitution (Southeast) is out of the Derby. Was he a qualifier? I say NO, as he never ran as a 2YO.

Hoppertunity (West/Southeast) does NOT qualify as he did not race as a 2YO.

Intense Holiday (NY/Southeast): Qualified upon his 3rd place finish in the Holy Bull. Since: Won the Risen Star, 2nd in the LA Derby.
Wildcat Red (Southeast) Qualified after winning the Hutcheson. Since then: Won the Fountain of Youth, 2nd in the FL Derby

We Miss Artie (various); Qualified after his 8th place finish in the Fountain Of Youth. Afterward he won the Spiral Stakes.

Ride On Curlin (KY): Qualified with 3rd place finish in the Southwest. Then: 3rd in the Rebel, 2nd in the AK Derby. BONUS: 3 races at Churchill.
*Chitu (West) does NOT qualify as he has not yet faced a field larger than 9.

*Tapiture (South) qualified after winning the Southwest. Followed this up with a 2nd in the Rebel, 4th in the AK Derby. BONUS: 3 races at Churchill.

*Midnight Hawk (West) does NOT qualify: largest field entered was 9 horses.

*Ring Weekend (Various): Qualified after winning the Tampa Bay Derby (G2). Followed up with 2nd in the Calder Derby

General a Rod (KY, Southeast): Qualified after finishing 2nd in the Fountain of Youth. Followed it up with 3rd in the FL Derby. BONUS: 1 race at Churchill.

Medal Count:(Various) Qualified after finishing 5th in the Fountain of Youth, then won the Transylvania, 2nd in the Blue Grass.

Candy Boy (West): Qualfiied after winning the Robert B Lewis.After that, 3rd in the SA Derby.

Cairo Prince (NY, South): Qualified after winning the Holy Bull. Then 4th in the FL Derby.

Uncle Sigh (NY): Qualified after finishing 5th in the Wood Memorial last time out.

Vinceremos (Southeast): Qualified after win in the SF Davis. Then was 2nd in the Tampa Bay Derby, last in the Blue Grass. Unfortunate victim of the point system in that sense as he likely needed points.

Harry’s Holiday KY, Southeast) : has NOT qualified: No dirt routes as 3YO.

Commanding Curve (Various): Qualified after 6th place finish in the Risen Star. Then 3rd in the LA Derby BONUS: 3 races at Churchill.

Pablo del Monte (Various): Qualified after finishing 3rd in the Blue Grass Stakes last time out.
Bayern (West Coast/South): NOT qualified: Has not run in larger than 8 horse field. Also has not run at 2.

Social Inclusion (NY/Southeast): NOT qualified: No races at age 2.
Big Bazinga (Various): Qualified after finishing 11th in the Holy Bull. Then, 2nd in a 75k race at Gulfstream Park (lost to Divine Oath),5th in the Spiral, 4th in the Blue Grass.
Coastline (KY/South): Fully qualified after finishing 3rd in the Smarty Jones Stakes. Then: 4th in the Southwes, 3rd in the Spiral, 10th in the Blue Grass. Bonus: 2 races at Churchill.
Strong Mandate (Various) Qualified after finishing 2nd in the Southwest Stakes. Then: 4th in the Rebel, 8th in the AK Derby.
In Trouble (NY, South): Qualified after finishing 4th in the Louisiana Derby last time out.

Noble Moon (NY) (VA bred): Qualified after winning the Jerome. Since then: 6th in the Wood Memorial.

Cleburne (KY/Southeast) : Qualified after finishing 3rd in the Calder Derby last time out. Bonus: 1 race at Churchill.
Commissioner (Various): Qualified after finishing 6th in the Fountain Of Youth. Since then: 3rd in the Sunland Derby, 6th in the AK Derby.
Schivarelli (NY) (FL bred):Does NOT qualify: No races at 2
Conquest Titan (Various): Qualified after finishing 2nd in the Holy Bull. Since then: 4th in the Tampa Bay Derby, 5th in the AK Derby.

Casiguapo:(Various) Does NOT qualify: No dirt routes at age 3. Where did he run this year? a 75k allowance effort over 6 furlongs at Gulfstream (5th, behind 4 others not on the trail), then the Blue Grass.
Asserting Bear (Various) (CAN bred) : Qualified upon finishing 5th in the SF Davis, then 4th in the Spiral, 8th in the Blue Grass.

To summarize here are the horses that I’ve eliminated from Derby contention: Danza, Dance With Fate, Hoppertunity, Chitu, Midnight Hawk, Harry’s Holiday, Bayern, Social Inclusion, Schivarelli, Casiguapo.

Here are the actual horses that are on the fence now for being in the Derby as of this typing: Ring Weekend, Tapiture, Dance With Fate, Chitu, Midnight Hawk.
Curiously,all 3 of Bob Baffert’s horses would be off the trail.
So after 37 ‘active’ horses on the Trail, I’ve brought the number down to 25. Based on the current system here’s who would be in:
1-5: California Chrome, Vicar’s In Trouble, Wicked Strong, Samraat, Intense Holiday.
6-10: Wildcat Red, We Miss Artie, Ride On Curlin, General a Rod, Medal Count.
11-15: Candy Boy, Cairo Prince, Uncle Sigh, Vinceremos, Commanding Curve
16-20: Pablo del Monte, Big Bazinga, Coastline, Strong Mandate, In Trouble.
21-25: Noble Moon, Cleburne, Commissioner, Conquest Titan, Asserting Bear.

I mention the races entered for each qualifier after such qualification based on my standard to suggest which races have been most key to determining this year’s Derby winner. Here are the races that got the most mention between the 25 hopefuls from my list:
Blue Grass: 5 horses
Spiral, Arkansas Derbies: 4
Louisiana, Florida Derbies: 3
Santa Anita, Wood, Risen Star, Rebel, Tampa Bay Derby, Fountain Of Youth: 2
Transylvania, Southwest, Sunland, two each.  75k allowances: 2 horses at Gulfstream

A total of 7 races in the Southeast have current qualifiers, followed by 3 from Kentucky, 3 from the South, 2 from the West, and 1 from NY.
And so, the Blue Grass, more for worse than better, became the most important race of the trail, as the points do dictate this. 5 horses still on my list ran in that one. The problem is that it’s a turf race. It’s not proper prep for the big race at Churchill. Thankfully, Keeneland will go back to dirt next year, ending 7 years of this terrible experiment. Alongsides, 4 current qualifiers raced in the Spiral Stakes, also on the synthetic. The Arkansas Derby became the best dirt route indicator this year, with 4 qualifiers, a race won by Danza, over Ride On Curlin, Strong Mandate, Commissioner, plus 2 non-qualifiers in Bayern and Tapiture. With Danza possibly not running in the Run For The Roses, maybe this race loses luster as well. It’s tough to rank the Florida Derby, as its winner, Constitution, is now out. So that leaves 4 preps as the best preps of the year:
Risen Star: Intense Holiday over Vicar’s In Trouble, along with Commanding Curve. To be fair, the Risen Star should be devalued in comparison as this drew just 8 horses.
Santa Anita Derby: California Chrome over Candy Boy, along with Hoppertunity.
Wood Memorial: Wicked Strong over Samraat and Uncle Sigh, also Social Inclusion, Noble Moon, Schivarelli.
Fountain Of Youth: Wildcat Red over General a Rod, Medal Count, Commissioner, We Miss Artie

I remarked on Twitter (@idealisticstats) that a horse who enters in a race and then willfully drops out of the Trail NOT due to injury or lack of qualification should forfeit Derby points to the next placed horse, tho keeping their rightful earnings. I believe that this rule should be in effect for any horse that raced in the Championship Series (2/22 to present) For the Blue Grass and the possible defection of Dance With Fate ,that should give Medal Count the full 100 points, then Pablo del Monte 40, Big Bazinga 20, Coltimus Prime with 10. I believe it would give all but Coltimus Prime a spot in my top 25, dropping Asserting Bear from the list.
So there’s how I evaluate this year’s preps, with the Lexington Stakes, another aberration of a race as its being run on turf, still to come.

In the next post I attempt to construct a better mousetrap re the Derby Trail.

1 Comment

  1. And as Cairo Prince scratches out, that devalues the FL Derby more. Vinceremos now in the virtual gate who belongs. Harry’s Holiday on the bubble, but doesn’t belong. I think we’ll see a few more defections before Derby Day.

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