Road to the Kentucky Derby: 50-point races could be key to picking a Derby winner

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One of the most difficult tasks in handicapping is to predict a Kentucky Derby winner months before the race actually takes place. The purpose of the prep races for the big event is to separate the serious players from the ones that may not be able to handle the top level of competition. Sometimes, a horse that is impressive in January or February is overwhelmed by the competition in March or April, when the waters get deeper.

Since the Derby points system was instituted in 2013, casual fans have looked to the 100-points-to-the winner races. This year, there will be 8 of these events, with 7 in the U.S. and the U.A.E. Derby being the eighth. Real contenders, however, can emerge earlier than these races. Often, handicappers rely on the “eyeball test,” looking for a note of brilliance in an emerging 3-year-old. That brilliance factor is not tied to any calendar, as a horse can show maturity and brilliance at any time leading up to the big race in Louisville.

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On Saturday, March 5th, NBC Sports will present the “1st Saturday in March,” at 4pm ET on CNBC, which will include the Fountain of Youth Stakes from Gulfstream and the San Felipe Stakes from Santa Anita. These are 50-points-to-the-winner races, and a look at their history shows how a Kentucky Derby winner can emerge from races of this type.

History of Kentucky Derby winners in 50-points-to-the-winner races
In 2013, the Todd Pletcher-trained Violence was a deserving 3/5 favorite in the Fountain of Youth. He was undefeated in 3 starts with 2 stakes wins in the Nashua Stakes and the Cash Call Futurity. The 2nd choice, at a juicy 5-1, was the Shug McGaughey-trained Orb, who was making his first start in a stakes race. After starting his career with three losses, he had won a Maiden race and an Allowance race in his last 2 starts, coming from off the pace in both efforts. As the race unfolded, Violence moved from his stalking position to take the lead as they approached the far turn. Orb was not yet in the picture at that point, but then he emerged in a big way and prevailed to win the race over Violence by a half-length. The way he gobbled up ground from the point of the turn to the eighth pole definitely passed the “eyeball test,” and he went on to win the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby with that come-from-behind style.

Orb’s late-closing win in the 2013 Fountain of Youth displayed the style that he would use to win the Kentucky Derby.

The following year, the Kentucky Derby winner came from an investment of $8,000. California Chrome was a California-bred, which, in itself, is an unlikely place for a Derby winner to come from. He entered the San Felipe Stakes off of two easy stakes victories against California-breds. The step from Cal-breds to an open-company Grade 2 race, however, is supposed to be a daunting one. He was a slight favorite in the San Felipe over the Bob Baffert-trained Midnight Hawk, who had won the Grade 3 Sham Stakes and was 3rd in the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis Stakes in his previous two starts. The race evolved with California Chrome on the lead and Midnight Hawk stalking in 2nd. A couple of times, Midnight Hawk got within a half-length, but as the field straightened out, he was spent, and “Chrome” was just getting started. He won both the San Felipe and the subsequent Santa Anita Derby by over 5 lengths prior to his dominant win in the Kentucky Derby. The San Felipe, however, was his “coming out party,” as he showed that his brilliance and dominance was not just limited to Cal-breds.

California Chrome displayed the same front-running dominance in the San Felipe that he would show to capture the Kentucky Derby.

Contenders to watch on the road to the Kentucky Derby
Will a Kentucky Derby winner emerge from this year’s editions of the Fountain of Youth and the San Felipe? At this stage, handicappers of the Triple Crown races are looking for horses who have a chance to show that brilliance factor. Two horses from the probables for the Fountain of Youth could be that good, but they present entirely different profiles from each other.

The race presents the 2022 debut of the Ken McPeek-trained Rattle N Roll. When last seen, he romped from off the pace to post a 4 ¼ length win in Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland on October 9th of last year. He has had an eventful 4-race career. His maiden start last June at 6 furlongs was the picture of an inexperienced horse. The chart notes say that he broke slow and then weaved through the pack to finish 3rd. Then, in a 2-turn race at Saratoga in August, he bolted on the 2nd turn and was pulled up. His 2nd chance around 2-turns, however, was his maiden-breaker, as he came from off the pace at Churchill to win by 3 lengths. It was the precursor to his big win at Keeneland.

A key factor with this horse, however, is his trainer. Ken McPeek has been preparing horses for the Triple Crown races for a long time, and he is not to be discounted, even when preparing a Grade 1 winner for his return off a long layoff.

The other horse who bears watching in the field is one who is undefeated in 2 starts and is making his first stakes start. The Todd Pletcher-trained Emmanuel had his first start in a 1-turn mile at Gulfstream in December, and he used his front-running style to win by over 6 lengths. Then, in January, he wired the field in an Allowance/Optional Claimer at Tampa Bay by over 4 lengths. The mile & 40 yards distance gave him his first experience around 2 turns. Will he be able to maintain this level of performance in stakes company against a horse as accomplished as Rattle N Roll? The answer will be found at Gulfstream on Saturday.

In the San Felipe, there are some expensive horses trying to prove that they belong on the Derby trail. Forbidden Kingdom, a $300,000 yearling purchase, could be the most accomplished of these, having won the San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita in his last start. The Richard Mandella-trained son of American Pharoah will be racing around beyond 7 furlongs for the first time, and he will be tested to see if he has distance limitations.

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This race also presents the unusual question of what to do with 3-year-olds trained by Bob Baffert. As things currently stand, these horses will have to be transferred to another trainer to earn points that would qualify them for the Derby field. If a Baffert trainee does well in this race, they would have to be transferred to another trainer and then finish 1st or 2nd in a 100-point race to qualify.

Beyond the legal issues, Baffert trainees will be a factor in the San Felipe. One Baffert trainee to watch in the race is Doppelganger, who was a $570,000 yearling purchase. He’s had only 2 career starts, and he was 4th as the favorite in the San Vicente in his most recent outing. He’s turned in some strong works for this race, but he could need more seasoning to prove he belongs at this level. The other Baffert horse in the race is Armagnac, how has posted a third and a win in two maiden races. It’s a bold move to put a horse into a Grade 2 race off a maiden win, but it’s a move that Baffert has been successful with in the past.

We may have seen our first brilliant performance of the 3-year-old season with the front-running score by the Steve Asmussen-trained Epicenter in the Risen Star Stakes on February 19th.

The Fountain of Youth and the San Felipe both have talented 3-year-olds in their lineups. It is one thing to be talented, however, and another thing to display brilliance. The possibility of a dynamic performance in these races is what makes them exciting, and it is why serious fans will tune in to Saturday’s telecast. The task of handicapping a 20-horse field in the Derby does not begin on the Monday of Derby week. If you haven’t started to assess the 3-year-olds, it’s time to let the task begin.

Al Bernstein has worked as a statistician on NBC’s horse racing telecasts since the inaugural Breeders’ Cup in 1984.