Thursday, March 25, 2010

Triple Crown Hopefuls Running Out of Runway

Dean Arnold

The Florida Derby G I produced win, place and show finishers that are as good as loaded into vans to Churchill Downs for a next start in the Kentucky Derby. But what about 4th place finisher Lentenor, the full brother to Barbaro?

Going into the Florida Derby, Lentenor had 7 weeks to the Kentucky Derby and $0 in graded stakes earnings.

What happens when a late blooming horse paints itself into a corner and has one shot to get graded stakes earnings to punch its ticket for Churchill? Why, it gets in trouble at the eighth pole, of course.

Finishing 4th, Lentenor now has 6 weeks to the Derby, just $37,500 in earnings, and connections that are highly unlikely to run him in 3 weeks in the Bluegrass Stakes or another top graded stakes prep.

The Kentucky Derby determines entry preference by graded stakes earnings. From the moment a horse debuts, it is understood that to earn a position in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May, graded stakes earnings must be accumulated. Unlike many critics of the process, I have always preferred this system since nothing is left up to a points system or committee. You want in? You know what you have to do. Go win some big money.

Many top prospects have been caught in this position over the last decade. Sunday Break, Rock Hard Ten, Chelokee come to mind, and now Lentenor.

I seem to be the last writer defending the Kentucky Derby Entry rules. I think that having the most graded stakes money is a valid criteria. Despite certain stakes offering disproportionate purses, the need to collect purse money against top company is a completely reasonable way to validate a horse's credentials.

- It shows the horse can take home big chunks of purses by running first or second when it counts.

- It shows the connections can map out a plan to get their horse into the right races to win against other stakes horses.

- The purse money and calendar of stakes races is laid out months in advance, so everyone is free to enter in the big preps and show they belong.

- It doesn't credit horses that look brilliant against non-graded stakes fields, which is racing's equivalent to a Division I college football team beating a 1AA team 70-3 just to impress the coaches' poll voters.

- It doesn't let subjective/objective ratings like speed figures or “sheet” numbers dictate the pecking order (and I say this despite being a devout speed and pace figure player).

And let's face it, rarely if ever does a runner out of the top 20 really deserve to be in, but end up excluded. I can name two in the last 25 years (and in most of those years, there were fewer than 20 entered when all the dust settled). The last major-league horses kept out of the Derby by the graded earnings criteria were Rock Hard Ten in 2004 and Sunday Break in 2002. Sunday Break went on to win the Grade 2 Peter Pan and then run third in the Belmont Stakes, but never won a Grade 1 race. Rock Hard Ten was beaten 11 ? lengths in the Preakness Stakes and 12 lengths in the Belmont Stakes.

One more note about Rock Hard Ten. Debuting in February, he won a maiden race, an allowance race, then ran 2nd (DQ'd to 3rd) in the Santa Anita Derby. Destined for 5 Grade I and II wins, he was a brilliant colt that just couldn't get enough rounds in the ring to be ready for a heavyweight bout in the spring of his 3-year-old year.

Back to Lentenor's 2010 Triple Crown hopes. As reported in the Daily Racing Form by Mike Welsh, Matz said Lentenor would likely return to allowance company in his next start. "He basically was telling us what we already knew, that he was green and inexperienced going into this race," said Matz. "He really wasn't ready for something like that yet. We'll back off a little, give him a conditioned race, get his confidence back, and hopefully by August we'll have a real nice 3-year-old."

So it is no surprise that Lentenor will back off for now, and like 2007 Derby hopeful and fellow Matz trainee Chelokee, he may be well served to aim for a somewhat less ambitious stakes schedule.

This Saturday includes four more big preps with big money: The $800,000 Sunland Derby (Mine That Bird's final prep last year), the $500,000 Lane's End S, the $750,000 Louisiana Derby and the $2 million UAE Derby in Dubai. Each will bring together a combination of experienced stakes runners trying to get a last strong prep before the main event, and a bevy of hopefuls taking their last chance to get graded stakes earnings that will catapult them to Churchill Downs. Later this week we will review these four preps and try to spot the likeliest winners.

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