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Derby trail looks all too familiar for bettors seeking value

Ron Flatter  
VSiN.com

Tight_Ten
Tight Ten, ridden by Ricardo Santana Jr., is the 2-1 morning-line favorite Saturday at Churchill Downs for the Iroquois Stakes, the first points prep for next year’s Kentucky Derby. (photo courtesy of Churchill Downs / Coady Photography)

Las Vegas

What are the certainties in life nowadays? Death, taxes, polarizing political posts on social media and, since 2013, the post-time favorite wins the Kentucky Derby.

The first sign that it will happen again in 2019 came this week, when Churchill Downs announced that the points preps that make up the Road to the Kentucky Derby will be the same this coming year as they were last year. At least they will be in North America, where it really counts. Qualifiers on separate trails have been added for two spots ceded to Europe and Japan, but for all practical purposes the 34 U.S. races plus one in the de-facto 51st state of Dubai will be same.

The seven-month trail begins this weekend with the $150,000 Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes, an 8½-furlong dirt race for 2-year-olds Saturday at 5:26 p.m. EDT at Churchill Downs. It ends April 14 with the Arkansas Derby and Lexington Stakes, both three weeks before Kentucky Derby 145 on May 4.

So how is it that this schedule has created such a color-inside-the-lines template that translates into chalky Runs for the Roses? The most frequent answer heard year in and year out since 2013 is that sprinters have been ostracized from the process.

Before the points system was put in place, invitations to the Kentucky Derby were based entirely on earnings in graded stakes. The biggest criticisms of that system were that too many horses were getting in through one-turn sprints – and that fillies had an easier path than colts to the first Saturday in May because of lucrative girls-only preps.

While the absence of fillies from the Derby has never been unusual, the elimination of sprinters has done more to reshape the entire event than any development since horses stopped being raced more than once a month.

The pace of the race is not much different, but the legitimacy of the pace-setter has been diminished. In the six runnings of the Derby under the points system, the only horse showing the best early speed to finish better than 12th was Dortmund three years ago, when he was third to American Pharoah. By contrast, in the six runnings immediately before the points system began, four of the early pace-setters finished in the top seven, including runners-up Hard Spun in 2007 and Bodemeister in 2012 as well as fourth-place Shackleford in 2011.

Lacking front-runners able to set an honest pace and stay the 1¼ miles, closers are now less likely to win the Derby than they were before. Orb did it on a sloppy track the first year of the points trail, but the five winners since were never more than four lengths off the lead and no further back than third place at any call. On the other hand, three Derby winners between 2007 and 2012 – Street Sense in 2007, Mine That Bird in 2009 and Animal Kingdom in 2011 – came from the rear half of the field to win.

So how does any of this analysis of a springtime classic matter now as we move from summer to fall? Well, a couple things come to mind.

Anyone betting Saturday’s Iroquois should tread lightly before thinking this is anything more than a table-setter for the real Derby preps next winter. The only horse from last year’s Iroquois to get to the Derby was Flameaway. The winner – The Tabulator – finished fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and never returned to the Derby trail.

More important in the long term is to examine the racing style of the current crop of 2-year-olds when considering wagers on upcoming Kentucky Derby futures. The new points system has clearly been a boon to pace chasers while discouraging bets on speed horses and closers.

Bets on non-conformist horses presume that owners and trainers even try to aim them nowadays at the Derby. But these trends have not developed in a bubble. In fact, trainers were among the first to figure out and speak critically of the new system’s idiosyncrasies. Bob Baffert advanced it to a new level by dropping Justify into exactly one graded stakes on his way to winning this year’s Derby.

That said, Derby points or no Derby points, the preps have purses that are worth chasing on their own merit. That explains why four of the 12 colts in the Iroquois field Saturday are speed horses, including Tight Ten (2-1), the morning-line favorite sired by Tapit that is one of trainer Steve Asmussen’s pair in this race. Manny Wah (8-1), My Sixth Sense (10-1) and Drunk As A Skunk (30-1) will also be prominent early.

Royal Urn (12-1) and Synthesis (12-1) come closer to fitting the stalking profile of a Derby horse, but they have not measured up to that sort of class in their early races. Synthesis, for instance, may have finished third last month in the Grade 2 Best Pal at Del Mar, but he was 13 lengths up the track from Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Future Wager favorite Instagrand, the likely favorite in Derby futures.

Asmussen’s other horse Tobacco Road (6-1), turf winner Pole Setter (6-1) and Dale Romans’s outside starter Everfast (12-1) are likely to be in mid-pack on the backstretch. Ken McPeek-trained Cairo Cat (8-1), Hog Creek Hustle (10-1) and Prairie Meadows Juvenile winner Mr Wrench (30-1) are the closers in the field.

Tight Ten cost Winchell Thoroughbreds $300,000 to breed, and he comes in with the field’s top speed rating – two big reasons he is likely to attract the biggest share of the race handle. But Tobacco Road, winner of last month’s Ellis Park Juvenile, brings more value and will key my card that will include Tight Ten, Cairo Cat and the long shot Mr Wrench It.

Every horse in this field is a long shot to get my money in a Derby bet. It used to be convenient to say that that is because there is too much time between now and May 4 and too much that may go wrong. Now we may add the fact that most of these horses do not fit the new Derby profile.

If nothing else, the process of elimination may have gotten easier. Or so it would seem.

Horse racing notes and opinions

A narrow loser to Voodoo Song last month at Saratoga, Delta Prince (5-2) is the morning-line favorite for this weekend’s $800,000 Grade 1 Woodbine Mile, a win-and-you’re-in qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Never out of the money in seven starts on turf, the Jimmy Jerkens-trained 5-year-old comes back to where he won a Grade 2 race in June. Oscar Performance (7-2), a hobbled, beaten favorite at last month’s Arlington Million, and Lord Glitters (4-1), an English gelding that was second in the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot, are also likely to attract big share of the handle. The thinking here looks chalky with Oscar Performance over Lord Glitters, Delta Prince and Mr Havercamp (6-1). The Woodbine Mile is scheduled for Saturday at 4:48 p.m. EDT.

The world’s top-ranked thoroughbred Winx has been no match for her competition during her 26-race winning streak in Australia. But it is hard to imagine a weaker field for a Group 1 race than the one she is facing Saturday in the $360,000 George Main Stakes over a turf mile at Royal Randwick in Sydney. Winx (1-8 in Australia) is one of five Chris Waller-trained horses in the field of nine, including the rabbit Religify (100-1) and 10-year-old Who Shot Thebarman (100-1). Unforgotten (10-1), another stable mate that won a Group 2 mile on this course two weeks ago, and Le Romain (13-1), a three-time Group 1 winner sired by Hard Spun, are the second and third choices in early betting. Those two are part of the three-way box underneath Winx on my exacta tickets as is Ace High (25-1), a pace-chaser that has finished second of two of his last three races with a minor injury that prevented a better finish in between. Otherwise, it is a sit-and-watch race that starts Saturday at 1:10 a.m. EDT, which is Friday at 10:10 p.m. PDT.

A colt sired by War Front out of the Smart Strike mare Streaming was sold to the Irish megastable Coolmore for $2.4 million at this week’s Keeneland September Yearling Sale in Kentucky. That was the highest price for any horse sold at a public sale this year. A colt by 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah went for $2.2 million to Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin stable. There were 26 yearlings that sold for at least $1 million each in the first four days of the sale, 10 of them going to Coolmore and Godolphin.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer talks about Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Future Wager favorite Roadster. Public clocker Bruno De Julio, journalist-handicapper Bob Ike and former National Horseplayers Championship winner Michael Beychok take part in a panel discussion on how to use morning workouts to cash afternoon bets. The RFRP is also available at leading providers such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts and Stitcher.

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