By Gary West, special to

And so it begins. Everything to this point on the Kentucky Derby trail has been prelude, like the first two or three rounds of a championship fight where the boxers jab and feint but don’t throw anything with conviction because they’re just testing each other, gauging each other’s power, monitoring each other’s speed and getting a feel for the ring. But then the fight suddenly begins in earnest, and from that moment forward every round and every punch matter.

That’s where we are now: Saturday afternoon, the run-up to the Kentucky Derby begins in earnest with the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans and the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park in Florida. Starting Saturday and continuing into April, 15 stakes races will largely determine the field for the 140th Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands: This is the championship round in point-gathering.

The field for the Kentucky Derby, of course, is limited to 20 horses based on points accumulated in designated races. In this first phase of this championship round, each race awards 50 points to the winner and 20 to the runner-up, with 10 for third and 5 for fourth. In other words, by winning one of these races – the Risen Star, Fountain of Youth, Gotham, Tampa Bay Derby, San Felipe, Rebel, Spiral and Sunland Derby – a horse can virtually ensure himself a place in the Churchill Downs starting gate on May 3. And with Derby Day looming, the races in the second phase assume even more value, 100-40-20-10 points: the Florida Derby, UAE Derby, Louisiana Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial, Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby.

Yes, from this point forward, every race and every performance matter, and matter greatly. The size of the fields for the Risen Star and Fountain of Youth are a reliable metric of the races’ importance. The Risen Star attracted 16 entrants, although Bond Holder, who reportedly got “banged around” while traveling from Southern California to New Orleans, will be a late scratch; and the Fountain of Youth brought 13 names into the entry box. All the hopefuls will be racing 1 1/16 miles for lucrative purses, of course, and for the honor of winning those prestigious events at Fair Grounds and Gulfstream; most of all, though, the horses in the Risen Star and Fountain of Youth will be competing for a ticket to the most famous of races, the Kentucky Derby.

It’s Mardi Gras season in New Orleans, party time. The parades began a week ago, and the festivities culminate on March 4. And just as Mardi Gras attracts visitors and revelers from throughout the country who clamor for beads and doubloons, the Risen Star has brought to together a diverse group of horses who’ll compete for Derby points. Todd Pletcher has sent Intense Holiday, who ran third in the Holy Bull, from Florida, and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has sent Hoppertunity, a flashy maiden winner at Santa Anita, from California. Emmett Park comes to New Orleans from Turfway Park in Kentucky, and Vigorish from Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.

But the horse to beat and the 5-2 favorite in the morning line is Vicar’s In Trouble, a Louisiana-bred flash who has become a local celebrity with his two Fair Grounds victories, achieved in dominating style by a total of nearly 20 lengths. He won the Lecomte Stakes by nearly seven. His teaming with jockey Rosie Napravnik only adds to the Vicar’s popularity.

The Vicar’s a speedster, but not headstrong. In the Lecomte, in fact, he showed a willingness to control his energy. Still, one of the major questions going into the Risen Star will be how much of that natural speed will Vicar’s In Trouble have to employ to overcome his outside post position and avoid a wide journey around the first turn. He drew No. 14, and so he’ll be out there, even after he moves over with the scratch of Bond Holder.

“The outside should not bother him,” said Joe Sharp, assistant to trainer Mike Maker, about Vicar’s In Trouble. “He’s not a horse that has ever had any issues in the gate. . . . He doesn't need the lead. He’s been behind horses in the morning, and it really doesn’t bother him.”

Rise Up, who won the $1 million Delta Jackpot in November, will make his seasonal debut in the Risen Star. A free-running speedster who won four of his six outings last year, he drew the No. 2 post position. From there, he’s the likely early leader. He could be the late leader, too, for he has proven he can carry his speed around two turns.

Hoppertunity should enjoy a favorable stalking trip. Gold Hawk, Commanding Curve and Intense Holiday have effective late moves, and they would benefit if a rapid pace develops. That’s very possible, and this almost certain: From Saturday afternoon’s festive and contentious parade at Fair Grounds, a Kentucky Derby possibility or two will emerge.

One of the problems Pletcher faces this time of year is that he has more Triple Crown possibilities in his barn than there are races immediately at hand. He trains no fewer than seven possibilities, and so he’s forced to put them on the road. To take advantage of the long Fair Grounds stretch, Intense Holiday has traveled to New Orleans. Meanwhile, Pletcher will send out Commissioner and We Miss Artie in the Fountain of Youth.

The 3-1 favorite in the morning line, Commissioner will be making his stakes debut. The long bodied son of A. P. Indy “has progressed” considerably, Pletcher said, since his maiden victory in August at Saratoga. That development was on display in his first start at Gulfstream Park, where Commissioner had to wait in traffic, angled out in upper-stretch and then charged to the wire to win in a photo over Top Billing, who’ll also make his stakes debut Saturday. Top Billing overcame traffic to get into a threatening position, but he couldn’t get by Commissioner in the stretch, or even in the gallop-out. Using his powerful late move, Top Billing overcame a four-wide trip to win his more recent outing, and he’s the 7-2 second-choice in the morning line.   

At 1 1/16 miles, is the Fountain of Youth too short and the Gulfstream surface too speed-favoring for Commissioner, whose two victories have been at 1 1/8 miles? Can Top Billing overcome his outside post position? He drew No. 12. Or will somebody else step out of the Fountain of Youth with a ticket to Kentucky? Wildcat Red perhaps, the Hutcheson Stakes winner who figures to be the early leader Saturday; or maybe General a Rod, the Gulfstream Park Derby winner who could enjoy a perfect stalking trip, or perhaps Almost Famous or Medal Count will jump up and announce his prominence.

And so it begins in earnest, this trek to Kentucky and this struggle to reserve a stall in the Churchill Downs starting gate.  From this moment forward, every stride matters greatly.