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Horse Racing Enthusiasts Should Pay Attention To 'The Road To The Kentucky Derby'

March 15, 2018
Many sports fans don't start thinking about horse racing until a couple of weeks before the Kentucky Derby. And some won't even be aware of who the marquee horses are until the NBC racing analysts give a primer on the field during the televised prelude to the 144th Run for Roses May 5.

And that's too bad. Because there's a dramatic chase leading to the Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown, which includes Baltimore's Preakness Stakes and New York's Belmont Stakes.

For the last several years, a point system has been central to determining which horses end up in the 20 starting gates at Churchill Downs. Unfortunately, there just hasn't been enough attention paid to that storyline.

The point system has helped decide the Kentucky Derby field since the 2013 race. A group of races -- that actually starts when horses are 2-years-old and continues through the 3-year-old campaign -- awards points to the top four finishers.

The number of races included in the point system has varied slightly, but this year it's about 35. Overall, they comprise what is called, not surprisingly, the Road to the Kentucky Derby.

Prior to the point system, Derby contenders were determined by purse earnings from all graded stakes races.

The point races basically fall into two groups on the calendar. The first group is from September of the 2-year-old campaign to about mid-February of the 3-year-old campaign (known as Prep Season). The latter group of races run mostly from March to mid-April (called the Championship Series), and frankly are far more important.

Not all the races award the same number of points. While many of the early races give 10 points for the winner, the later races -- such as the Florida Derby (March 31), the Wood Memorial (April 7), the Santa Anita Derby (April 7) and four others -- reward 100 points to the winner, 40 for second place, 20 for third and 10 for fourth. 

So with the Road to the Derby just hitting its full stride, you've got time to start paying attention so you can sound (and perhaps bet) like an expert come Derby Day.

There have already been a handful of bellwether races that award 50 points for first place, including the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park March 3 that was won by long-shot Promises Fulfilled, who went off at 18-1.

So what relevance does any of this hold regarding the art and science of picking winners in the Kentucky Derby itself?

Here's the history since the points system was first used in 2013 (keeping in mind that it's a small statistical sample that includes just five campaigns):

- Every winner of the five Kentucky Derbys of the points-system era earned at least 100 points, and all won at least one of the 100-point races to reach their point total.

- None of the five Derby winners finished lower than seventh in the points standings.

- Three Derby winners finished either first or second in the points standings.

- Three of the five winners of the points-system era won the Florida Derby.

It's also worth noting Derby officials have created a points system for races in Japan and Europe to allow for possible international competitors to come out of both of those places. A colt named Sumahama won the right of first refusal for Japan's Derby slot in winning the Hyacinth Stakes in February.

Here are the 100-point races remaining on the calendar:

March 24 -- Louisiana Derby

March 31 -- Florida Derby, UAE Derby

April 7 -- Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass Stakes

April 14 -- Arkansas Derby

Horses To Watch 

Good Magic was the darling of the early Triple Crown season having won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile by more than five lengths in November, the top race for 2-year-olds. But the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park March 3 sent the smart-money crowd back to the drawing board. Long-shot Promises Fulfilled went wire-to-wire in winning the Grade 2 stakes race, while Good Magic, the 3-5 favorite, finished a lackluster third. 

Good Magic's loss in the Fountain of Youth (although he was third, he never really challenged in the stretch) means horse handicappers will be searching for a Kentucky Derby front-runner as the Derby's Championship Series plays out through the end of March and into April.

In the tally of Derby points, Promises Fulfilled's 52 points (50 for winning the Fountain of Youth and two for finishing third in a Prep Season race last year) should be good enough to put him in the top 20 that qualify for the Derby. The Dale Romans-trained Promises Fulfilled seems to like the Gulfstream dirt; he will run at the same track during the Florida Derby March 31, with another 100 points up for grabs to the winner.

Good Magic's 34 points (10 for finishing third in the Fountain of Youth and 24 from his 2-year-old campaign) should also place him among the top 20. Strike Power has 21 points (20 for finishing second in the Fountain of Youth and one point for a fourth-place finish last year).

Photo Credit: Mitch Stringer/PressBox

Issue 242: March 2018