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.

RELATED: 75-1 longshot Un Ojo scores upset win in $1 million Rebel Stakes

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.

Breeders’ Cup preps reach crescendo with Fall Stars Weekend at Keeneland

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To the horse racing world, Keeneland is Disneyland. Everything about the Keeneland experience tells you that you are in a special place where the world revolves around thoroughbred racing and breeding.

Take Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, for example. Although it’s in a relatively small marketplace, it can handle 747 jets, because wealthy owners attending the horse sales often arrive in a jumbo jet with a large entourage. When you leave the airport, you are at the intersection of Man o’War Boulevard and Versailles Road. You’re literally across the street from Gate 1 of Keeneland Race Course. Keeneland, by the way, is adjacent to the legendary Calumet Farm. Venturing out onto various side streets, you will almost stumble upon some of the most famous breeding facilities in the world. In the paddocks of these farms, the vision of mares and their foals frolicking is commonplace, looking like a scene from a movie.

Keeneland is unique, as its elegance and its racing exist side by side with its primary purpose: being a place where millions of dollars change hands on a regular basis in the sales pavilion. A countless number of legendary horses had their careers begin with their purchase in that pavilion. Unlike venues in places like New York and California, where racing is conducted virtually year-round, racing at Keeneland is held for three weeks in the spring and three weeks in the fall.

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The fall meeting is situated perfectly to provide final prep races for many of the horses who are pointed to a performance in the Breeders’ Cup. In a span of 3 days, from October 7th to 9th, Fall Stars Weekend will feature 9 different “Win and You’re In” races in nine different Breeders’ Cup divisions. Normally, these would be very attractive races with large purses, but when you add in the fact that the Breeders’ Cup will be held at Keeneland this year, they are even more attractive. These races offer the prospect of having a horse get a final prep at Keeneland, stay stabled in the Lexington area, and then compete in the Breeders’ Cup, all in a four-week span. For those based at Keeneland, it means they will just have a brief walk through the magnificent stable area to get to the location where they will be racing.

History of The Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland

The first Breeders’ Cup held at Keeneland was the 2015 edition, and the decision to hold the event there was controversial. Many in the racing world felt that the facility was too small, as it could not hold the large crowds of Churchill Downs and Santa Anita. Brilliant management at Keeneland led to the attendance in the main building being limited, with satellite locations on the grounds handling the overflow of a total crowd of about 40,000. It was a comfortable event to attend, helped in no small part by the fact that the star of the show was the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. American Pharoah lived up to his billing, turning in a dominant performance to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the final race of his career. The event returned to Keeneland in 2020, but attendance was limited due to the pandemic. Once again, however, the star of the show delivered, as Kentucky Derby winner Authentic capped off his career with a win in the Classic.

Fall Stars Weekend will be featured in two telecasts, to be shown at 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday on CNBC. Each day will feature two live races, along with highlights of some of the other “Win and You’re In” races from the weekend.

RELATED: Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

Saturday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

On Saturday, the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity will be shown live. The winner will gain entrance to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The likely favorite will be the Todd Pletcher-trained Forte, who was a dominant winner of the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. Pletcher has another interesting prospect in Lost Ark, who is 2-for-2 lifetime, including a runaway win in the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth in his last start. Bob Baffert will be shipping in two juveniles for a possible start in the Breeders’ Futurity. Most notable of these is Carmel Road, who captured a maiden race at Del Mar by 8 ½ lengths in his last start. The other possible Baffert starter is National Treasure, who captured a 6 ½ furlong Maiden race at Del Mar in a fast time in his only career start. Another youngster pointed to this race is Frosted Departure, from the barn of Ken McPeek. This one captured an allowance race at Churchill Downs by 9 ¼ lengths last time out.

The other live race on Saturday’s telecast is the Coolmore Turf Mile, which is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. This is always a contentious race, and some veteran campaigners who haven’t lost a step highlight this year’s field. One of those vets is the Bill Mott-trained Casa Creed, who won the Fourstardave Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. Major turf races at this time of year frequently feature Chad Brown trainees, and this race is no exception. His top two probables here are Emaraaty, who won the Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga in his last start, and Masen, who won the Poker Stakes at Belmont earlier this year. Paulo Lobo will return with In Love, who won this race last year.  Finally, how about a horse who has been 1st or 2nd in 10 of 12 lifetime starts at 1 mile on turf? That’s trainer Michael McCarthy’s veteran Smooth Like Strait. This one is a wide-open affair with some worthy contenders, to be sure.

RELATED: Mo Donegal rewards team’s confidence at Belmont

Sunday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

The first live race on Sunday’s telecast from Keeneland will be the Bourbon Stakes, for 2-year-olds on the turf. It is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Some key trainers dominate the storylines in this race. Mark Casse has won the Bourbon Stakes in 4 of its last 7 runnings, and he will run Boppy O, the winner of the With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. McPeek is another 4-time winner of the Bourbon. He won last year with Tiz The Bomb, who then went on to finish 2nd in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. His 2 probables for the race are Rarified Flair (2nd in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile last out) and B Minor (won a Maiden race on dirt at Churchill Downs in his last start). It also should be noted that North America’s all-time leading trainer in wins, Steve Asmussen, will have two probable entries in Red Route One and Gigante. Red Route One won a Maiden race at Kentucky Downs in his last, while Gigante was the winner of the Kitten’s Joy Stakes at Colonial Downs in his last appearance. Finally, there is Brendan Walsh, who seems to always be a factor in Kentucky, and especially in turf races. He presents Reckoning Force, who won that $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile in his last out.

The show-topper on Sunday is the venerable Juddmonte Spinster Stakes. Back in 1984, Princess Rooney posted a win in the Spinster as her final prep before winning the inaugural running of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Other notables who have won this race in their final prep before winning the Distaff include Bayakoa, Paseana, Inside Information and Blue Prize.

This year’s Juddmonte Spinster features a matchup between two of the top females of the past couple of years in Letruska and Malathaat. Letruska won the Spinster last year on her way to an Eclipse Award as top older female dirt horse. This year, she has posted 2 wins and a third in 4 starts. Malathaat won the 2021 Kentucky Oaks and was 3rd in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She enters this race off a win in the Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga.

This weekend presents the final North American “Win and You’re In” opportunities for the Breeders’ Cup. In New York, California, and Kentucky, 14 horses will gain entry into the “Big Dance” of Thoroughbred Racing. Most of us will be getting a case of “Breeders’ Cup Fever” this weekend, as the reality of those races on the first weekend of November draws ever so much closer.

Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

Qatar Prix de Arc de Triomphe
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PARIS – Alpinista made light work of the rain and heavy ground to narrowly win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Jockey Luke Morris attacked heading into the last furlong and the 5-year-old mare just held off a late charge from Belgian jockey Christophe Soumillon on Vadeni and last year’s 80-1 winner Torquator Tasso, ridden by veteran Italian jockey Frankie Dettori.

“I had a beautiful draw in stall six and after being perfectly placed, there was a second when I thought we were getting drawn into it too early,” Morris said. “But once she had taken charge, I was able to sit on her from 100 meters out.”

Morris felt the conditions would have made it harder for Alpinista to attack the way she did.

“I was concerned when all that rain came but the race went very smoothly,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how it could have in a 20-runner Arc. It was incredible.”

Alpinista was among the pre-race favorites.

“If it hadn’t been my horse, I would have thought it was going to win every inch of the way, but when it’s your own of course it’s a nightmare,” Alpinista trainer Mark Prescott said. “I didn’t think all that rain would help, but she’s never traveled better and has come on with each race.”

It was not yet clear if Alpinista will next race at the Breeders’ Cup or the Japan Cup next month.