With less than three weeks to go until the first Saturday in May, the prospective field for the 139th Kentucky Derby is coming into focus.
For the first time, the Derby field is being determined by how many points the horses earn in a series of scoring races. The Kentucky Derby Championship Series presented by TwinSpires.com offered the biggest point-scoring opportunities. Those major preps are all in the books now, and only two "wild card" races remain for horses trying to make the 20-horse field.
Topping the leaderboard are the winners of the seven races that were worth 100 points to the winner -- Orb (Florida Derby), Verrazano (Wood Memorial), Goldencents (Santa Anita Derby), Java's War (Blue Grass), Overanalyze (Arkansas Derby), Revolutionary (Louisiana Derby) and Lines of Battle (U.A.E. Derby).
Orb and Verrazano have each earned 150 points by winning two of the Championship Series races. Both were ridden by John Velazquez, who decided to stick with Verrazano in the Kentucky Derby.
Verrazano rates as the projected favorite in the Run for the Roses because he has the added allure of being undefeated in four career starts. The Todd Pletcher trainee captured his first two outings at Gulfstream Park by 24 lengths combined and dominated the March 9 Tampa Bay Derby to earn 50 points toward the Kentucky Derby.
Next appearing in the April 6 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, Verrazano wasn't as flashy. Yet he showed the ability to relax early -- which had been a question -- and under confident handling by Velazquez, he appeared to have a bit up his sleeve late. First rebuffing the previously unbeaten Vyjack, Verrazano then held off Normandy Invasion by three-quarters of a length. Normandy Invasion's fast-finishing second was a clutch performance that assured him a spot in the Derby. Vyjack is also safely in the Derby field, having won the Gotham before his third in the Wood.
Verrazano looks to defy history in the Kentucky Derby, however. He didn't debut until his official third birthday on Jan. 1, and no Derby winner since Apollo in 1882 was unraced as a juvenile.
Orb has made great progress at Gulfstream this winter. After rallying from well off a hot pace in the Feb. 23 Fountain of Youth (good for 50 points), he showed tactical versatility in the March 30 Florida Derby. As a more tepid pace unfolded, Orb took up a closer position early, and easily surged past Itsmyluckyday by 2 3/4 lengths. Itsmyluckyday, who was coming off a track record-setting win in the January 26 Holy Bull at Gulfstream, will try to turn the tables on Orb at Churchill Downs.
The well-bred Orb comes with a compelling storyline for traditionalists to savor. A homebred campaigned by two of racing's most illustrious owners -- Stuart S. Janney III and the Phipps Stable -- and trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, Orb will try to give his connections their first-ever Derby victory. Jockey Joel Rosario, another seeking his first Derby, regains the mount.
Goldencents catapulted into third on the leaderboard by capturing the April 6 Santa Anita Derby. Like last year's Kentucky Derby hero I'll Have Another, he is trained by Doug O'Neill, who now has a shot at back-to-back wins in America's most famous race.
Goldencents had earned points in earlier scoring races as well. Last fall, he was runner-up in the Champagne before winning the Delta Downs Jackpot and the Sham Stakes. His Derby chances appeared to take a hit when he could do no better than fourth in the March 9 San Felipe, where he was compromised by a speed duel. With a kinder pace scenario in the Santa Anita Derby, Goldencents bounced right back into the Kentucky Derby picture.
Although Goldencents is a Southern California shipper, he is something of a hometown horse in Louisville. One of his co-owners is Rick Pitino, coach of the University of Louisville men's basketball team. Fresh off an NCAA championship, Pitino seeks a unique sports double in the Derby.
Java's War, who had finished a rallying second to Verrazano in the Tampa Bay Derby, flattered him when coming back to take Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Overcoming a tardy start, the Ken McPeek trainee rallied from last to edge Palace Malice in time. Java's War had been third in last October's Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland and clearly thrived returning to the Polytrack. His lone attempt on the Churchill Downs dirt, on the other hand, was not encouraging -- a sixth in the Kentucky Jockey Club in November.
Aside from Verrazano, Pletcher has three others safely in the Derby field -- Overanalyze, Revolutionary and Palace Malice.
Overanalyze, who earned 10 points for winning the Remsen last fall, disappointed in his reappearance when only fifth to Vyjack in the Gotham. Needing to boost his point total to get into the Run for the Roses, he responded with a rallying 4 1/4-length victory in Saturday's Arkansas Derby. Overanalyze has a pattern of alternating wins with losses throughout his seven-race career, and will try to win two in a row for the first time. Arkansas Derby runner-up Frac Daddy now has a total of 44 points, presumably enough to join stablemate Java's War at Churchill.
Revolutionary closed from far back to win both the Withers at Aqueduct and the Louisiana Derby. His Withers score was worth only 10 points, so his Derby prospects hinged on a big performance at Fair Grounds, and he delivered. Uncorking a bold five-wide move on the far turn, Revolutionary struck the front in the stretch and repelled a stern challenge from Mylute by a neck. Although the margin of victory was tight, Revolutionary forged well clear on the gallop-out. Mylute's 42 points have earned him a rematch with Revolutionary in Kentucky.
Palace Malice was an unlucky seventh in the Louisiana Derby, where he was full of run, but short of room, at a crucial point in the stretch. Wheeling back two weeks later to seek points in the Blue Grass (an unusually quick turnaround for Pletcher), he was a near-miss second. It was a case of Derby mission accomplished, even if in defeat, and the son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin figures to be happier back on dirt.
Lines of Battle is based in Ireland with trainer Aidan O'Brien, who has yet to hit the board with his four previous Derby runners. Co-owned by the Coolmore team, which also has an interest in Verrazano, Lines of Battle earned his way here by winning the March 30 U.A.E. Derby in Dubai. But that came over the synthetic Tapeta surface at Meydan, and it's questionable whether he will adapt to the very different dirt at Churchill Downs. Former stablemate Daddy Long Legs, last year's U.A.E. Derby winner, certainly didn't -- he was eased in the Kentucky Derby.
The Kelly Breen-trained Black Onyx locked up a berth by landing the March 23 Spiral Stakes over Turfway's Polytrack. His form on dirt is mixed, however, and is another who might prefer turf or synthetic.
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, a four-time Kentucky Derby winner, has a pair of chances at number five. Will Take Charge captured two preps at Oaklawn -- the Jan. 21 Smarty Jones and the March 16 Rebel, outdueling stablemate Oxbow in the latter. With 60 points in the bank, the son of top racemare Take Charge Lady skipped the final round of preps in favor of training up to the Run for the Roses.
Oxbow, who romped by 11 1/2 lengths in the January 19 Lecomte at Fair Grounds, hasn't had much luck since. He didn't help himself by finishing fifth in the Arkansas Derby, but as of April 14, his 36 points are good for 17th on the list.
Fellow Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, who has trained three Derby winners, started out the year with a battalion of hopefuls. A combination of injury and lackluster efforts have whittled his hopes down to one confirmed starter at the moment -- Govenor Charlie, who smashed the track record when running away with the March 24 Sunland Derby.
After Uncaptured was removed from Derby consideration Sunday, Baffert's Super Ninety Nine moved up to 18th on the points list, but his trainer reportedly regards him as a miler. His distant third to Goldencents in the Santa Anita Derby tends to corroborate that, and he's questionable to advance to Churchill.
Falling Sky, winner of the February 2 Sam F. Davis at Tampa and fourth in the Arkansas Derby, now ranks 19th. Baffert's Den's Legacy, who was sixth in the Arkansas Derby, is 20th.
These contenders are on the verge of getting overtaken by other "bubble" horses, currently on the cusp of the top 20, but who are eligible to score in the upcoming wild card races, in a last-ditch attempt at points.
The two wild card races are Saturday's Lexington Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile affair over Keeneland's Polytrack, and the April 27 Derby Trial, around a one-turn mile at Churchill just one week before the Derby. Each race offers points to the top four finishers on a scale of 20-8-4-2, respectively.
Blue Grass third Charming Kitten, owned by perennial leading Kentucky owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey, climbed into 21st as Merit Man and Departing were ruled out of the Derby.
Also prominent among the bubble horses is Baffert's Code West, who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the Lexington. McPeek's Taken by the Storm, far down on the list with only five points, is listed as probable.
As always, the final build-up to the Kentucky Derby is sure to feature plot twists, with defections and new additions, so stay tuned!