After more than three decades in the Thoroughbred racing and breeding business, Evelyn Benoit isn’t shy about her convictions. Ask her about her star 3-year-old, Sunbean, who is scheduled to compete Saturday in the $1 million Louisiana Derby, and Benoit, a Louisianan through and through, offers that her horse is good enough to run in another, more prestigious Derby – the Kentucky Derby.
But if Sunbean is to finish what would be an improbable ascent – from his humble roots on Benoit’s Louisiana breeding farm to a starting berth in the nation’s greatest horse race – he will likely need to finish first or second Saturday at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. That’s because, under a new Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifying system introduced last summer, horses now qualify for the Derby by accumulating points in the most important Derby “prep” races. It’s an absolute meritocracy, and Sunbean, just like every other horse, will have to earn his trip to Louisville.
Prior to 2013, the Kentucky Derby field was determined by money earned in a series of stakes races during the 10 months leading up to the Derby. Only 20 horses can start in the Derby, and the earnings list was used to narrow the field. But there were complaints about inequities in the system, along with mass confusion for the casual sports fan. According to research commissioned last year by Churchill Downs, 83 percent of fans did not know how a horse qualified to compete in the Kentucky Derby.
So out went the old, and in came the Road to the Kentucky Derby points system. So far, so good: Owners and trainers seem to like the changes, the media’s assessment has been mostly positive, and fans are having no problem getting their arms around the concept that any horse with at least 50 points is almost assured of a starting position in the Kentucky Derby. Saturday marks the start of the second leg of the Road to the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, where the points stakes escalate. At stake in three races – the Louisiana Derby, the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and the UAE Derby at Meydan in Dubai – will be 100 points for each winner. Second, third and fourth place will earn horses 40, 20 and 10 points respectively.
Jim Mulvihill, Fair Grounds’ communications manager, said the changes seem to be having the desired effect.
“The evidence suggests that the Kentucky Derby points system has worked out well for Fair Grounds, and I think in general, it has resulted in deeper and better prep races for fans to follow,” Mulvihill said. “We’ve had larger fields in all of our prep races this year, and we have a full field of 14 for the Louisiana Derby – we haven’t had a field of 14 start in that race for over 50 years. We’ve had large fields since we made it a million-dollar race and moved it to the final week of our season, but this is a deeper, higher-quality field of horses.”
Trainer Al Stall Jr., who will saddle both Sunbean and the undefeated Departing in the Louisiana Derby, also is a fan of the new format.
“It puts more weight on certain races. It eliminates sprints and turf races, and takes some of the weight out of the 2-year-old races,” Stall said. “That’s all good. But we haven’t been affected by the changes as far as trying to chase points. If horses don’t win points in the big races, it tells you they’re not good enough to run in the Derby.”
Sunbean lost the first race of his life, by inches, before reeling off three consecutive victories, each one more impressive than the last. Stall has handled the horse conservatively, racing him only against other Louisiana-breds. On Saturday, the kid gloves come off, ready or not. Sunbean will face 13 rivals, including eight Kentucky-breds, two from Florida, two from Virginia, and one from California.
Benoit is eager to test her homebred against the best. Louisiana-breds rarely make it to the Kentucky Derby. In fact, they rarely even compete in the Louisiana Derby, as far-fetched as that might sound. Stall, 51, has been enshrined in the Fair Grounds Hall of Fame but has yet to saddle a Louisiana Derby winner. And Stall, the mastermind behind Blame’s upset of Zenyatta in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, has never started a horse in the Kentucky Derby.
“It’s a very big deal,” Stall said Wednesday, after Sunbean drew post position No. 6 for the 1-1/8-mile race. “We feel like we’re in with a shot. We’re not just dreaming. I wouldn’t do that. He’s run some powerful races, he’s done everything mentally, and his [speed] figures really fit with these horses. We feel this horse is the kind you take a swing with. We think we have a legitimate shot to win the thing.”
“We’re praying,” Benoit said. “I know everyone in Louisiana is pulling for this horse. I’m so happy a Louisiana-bred got into a Louisiana Derby. I can only think of two of them in my lifetime.
“I’ve told my family to be sure there’s more than one ambulance there Saturday; if we win this race, they’ll need one for me. This would be so big for Louisiana. So many people have left the business. And then the hurricanes, every year. To have everything going against them, and then when they get these horses to the racetrack, it’s just a remarkable experience. I’m thrilled to death, and I’m just honored that we can represent Louisiana. It would be wild to win it.”