The Road to the Kentucky Derby heats up on Saturday with a pair of key preps, the Grade 2 $400,000 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park and the Grade 2 $400,000 Risen Star at Fair Grounds.
Under the new points system started this year by Churchill Downs, points are awarded for each of the top four finishers in each Derby prep race. The previous 19 prep winners were awarded 10 points for those wins, with the runner up getting four points, the third place finisher two points, and the fourth place finisher garnering one point.
The stakes are higher starting on Saturday, as the top four finishers will be awarded 50-20-10-5 points. There are eight Derby preps between now and March 24, each with 85 points in total up for grabs.
The next series of seven races starting with the Grade 1 Florida Derby, Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, and Group 2 UAE Derby will offer points of 100-40-20-10 to the top four finishers.
The new system is not perfect, but it is a major improvement over using just graded stakes earnings to determine the 20 runners for the Run for the Roses. A race like the Grade 3 $1 million Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs was worth as much or more as traditional preps like the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby and Florida Derby because the track has the luxury of having slots fueled purses.
My main beef with the system is that the Grade 1 Champagne and the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile are worth just ten points, while races like the Grade 3 Spiral and Grade 3 Sunland Derby are worth 50 points.
The best part of this new system is trainers can’t win a race like the Delta Jackpot and then sit back and wait for the first Saturday of May. It may take as many as 40 points to assure a starting spot in the gate at Churchill Downs.
There are eight races worth 50 points and another seven races where the winners receive 100 points. That will only leave five spots if all the winners make it to Louisville.
That is going to mean some trainers are going to have to run their promising three-year-olds more often, and if this weekend’s Derby preps are any indication, horseplayers will have quite a few excellent betting races to look forward to.
The Fountain of Youth drew 11 runners, up from just seven last year. This year’s Risen Star drew 15 runners but a couple may scratch. Last year’s Risen Star attracted 11 runners.
Last year’s Florida Derby drew only eight runners and surely will draw a larger field this year.
Both of Saturday’s Derby preps are outstanding betting races. The Risen Star drew 15, although it appears that the Doug O’Neil trainee He’s Had Enough will opt for the Fountain of Youth.
The Chad Brown trained Normandy Invasion is the 5-2 morning line favorite in the Risen Star. The colt makes his three-year-old debut for the Chad Brown barn and first start since a nose loss in the Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct on Nov. 24.
The fully loaded Todd Pletcher barn will send out Palace Malice (8-1), who ran second last out against Alw-1 optional claimers in the slop at Gulfstream Park going seven furlongs.
The Fountain of Youth is led by the Pletcher trained Violence who is the 9-5 morning line favorite. The colt was perfect as a juvenile including wins in the Grade 2 Nashua and Grade 1 CashCall Futurity.
His main rivals figure to be Grade 3 Sam F. Davis winner Falling Sky (6-1), and recent Alw-1 winners Majestic Hussar (6-1) and Cerro (4-1).
My Best Plays Report for Saturday will include my selections for both Derby preps as well as my strongest plays from Aqueduct and Gulfstream Park.
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