Racing News

The Road Begins at Churchill Downs

| KentuckyDerby.com | 09/06/2013 #

While it is surely fitting that the Road to the Kentucky Derby – the points-based Derby qualifying system introduced a year ago – would both begin and end at Churchill Downs, it required some heavy lifting by Churchill Downs to make it happen.  

First came news from Louisville that Churchill Downs, home to popular spring and fall meetings for decades, would add a new 12-day meeting in September, followed by word that the Iroquois Stakes for 2-year-olds, traditionally a fall-meet fixture, would be moved forward to serve as the official starting point along the Road to the Kentucky Derby.

While it is surely fitting that the Road to the Kentucky Derby – the points-based Derby qualifying system introduced a year ago – would both begin and end at Churchill Downs, it required some heavy lifting by Churchill Downs to make it happen.  

A dozen horses were entered to compete in the Iroquois this Saturday, and the top four finishers will earn Derby qualifying points. Churchill Downs made some minor modifications to the program, which was introduced a year ago, but the nuts and bolts are unchanged – the horses with the most points at the end of the 34-race series will get first dibs on starting spots in the Derby.

Among those entered in the Iroquois is Ride On Curlin, a flashy maiden winner at Ellis Park in his second lifetime start. It’s never too early for jockeys to start angling for potential Derby horses, and Ride On Curlin, the 5-2 morning line favorite, will be handled by Calvin Borel, a three-time Derby winner. 

Rosie Napravnik has the call on another top contender, Rise Up, for trainer Tom Amoss. Napravnik’s bid to become the first woman to ride a Kentucky Derby winner caught the nation’s fancy this past May, when she piloted the Amoss-trained Mylute to a fifth-place finish. Napravnik is one of the country’s leading jockeys and figures to have a Derby mount in 2014. But will Rise Up come along for the ride? The colt has done his part to this point, winning his past two starts with relative ease.

Farther afield, the racing world is already buzzing about a couple of 2-year-olds who made waves this summer at the Saratoga meeting in upstate New York. Strong Mandate raced to a powerful victory in the Hopeful Stakes on Labor Day, a happy 78th birthday present for trainer D. Wayne Lukas, himself a four-time Kentucky Derby winner, while Havana, from the first crop of the promising stallion Dunkirk, narrowly missed setting a track record for five-and-one-half furlongs in his career debut last month. 

Mike Watchmaker, who compiles divisional rankings for Daily Racing Form, currently lists Strong Mandate as the leading 2-year-old in the nation, with Havana at No. 3, though as Watchmaker would surely agree, his rankings in September are likely to bear little resemblance to his rankings next spring.

Identifying the next Derby winner is daunting enough on the first Saturday in May, let alone eight months out. According to statistics kept by The Jockey Club, the North American foal crop in 2011 numbered about 27,000, and hundreds of those horses, now 2 years old, could fairly be called Kentucky Derby contenders. 

Identifying the next Derby winner is daunting enough on the first Saturday in May, let alone eight months out. According to statistics kept by The Jockey Club, the North American foal crop in 2011 numbered about 27,000, and hundreds of those horses, now 2 years old, could fairly be called Kentucky Derby contenders. And hundreds more, carrying the torch for owners and trainers who dare to dream big, could be called Kentucky Derby “hopefuls.”

As always, however, there’s a good chance the Derby victor will have been sired by one of the sport’s most influential stallions, someone like Malibu Moon or Giant’s Causeway, the leading sire by earnings in North America in three of the past four years. According to The Jockey Club, Giant’s Causeway was the nation’s most popular stallion in 2010, when he covered 217 mares. His babies are now 2-year-olds, some of them having already launched their racing career.

Next on the 2010 list after Giant’s Causeway was Malibu Moon, the sire of 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb. He was followed by Candy Ride, the standout turf sire Kitten’s Joy, Medaglia d’Oro, Smart Strike, Dunkirk, Tapit, and Curlin. When the smoke clears on Derby Day, there’s a fighting chance the winner will represent one of those stallions. 

In the short term, all of the above could point to Tapiture in the Iroquois Stakes. Tapiture, by Tapit, finished second behind Strong Mandate in a maiden race at Saratoga in August. His full sister was an accomplished distance runner, and Tapiture is conditioned by Steve Asmussen, one of the nation’s leading trainers.

It’s all speculation at this point, of course. To put an equine twist on an old sports adage, that’s why they run the races.