HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - When the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park and the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds are run on Saturday, people who follow thoroughbred racing will watch intently, even if they don't have a financial stake in the outcome. The prep races that lead to the Kentucky Derby annually engage the attention of fans trying to spot the future winner of America's most famous race.
But there is a new twist on the road to the Derby this year. Churchill Downs has changed the system to determine who gets into the Derby field and who doesn't. The new rules will put added pressure on owners and trainers and ought to make the pre-Derby campaign even more competitive.
Churchill limits the Derby to 20 starters and for decades has given preference to horses on the basis of their earnings in graded stakes. The system wasn't completely rational; horses got credit for earnings in 2-year-old races, sprints and grass races that had little or no relevance to the Derby. Moreover, purse money has ceased to reflect the importance of a prep race. The Delta Jackpot for 2-year-olds, run at little Delta Downs in Louisiana, offers a $1 million purse bolstered by slot-machine revenue, and thus counted for more than the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, which has produced 16 winners of the Run for the Roses.
It is important to have fair rules governing eligibility because the Derby in recent years has regularly attracted more than 20 prospective runners.
The new rules have generated plenty of controversy. The Risen Star Stakes and the Louisiana Derby - traditionally regarded as second-tier prep races - were accorded 50- and 100-point status, respectively. (Churchill Downs, Inc. owns the Fair Grounds, where they are run.) The Illinois Derby at Hawthorne, which has grown in importance and produced the 2002 Kentucky Derby winner, was excluded from the list entirely. (Hawthorne was involved in a dispute over racing dates with the other Chicago track, Arlington Park, owned by Churchill Downs, Inc.) Many critics lambasted the fact that the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile earns only 10 points, creating the possibility that the champion of a thoroughbred generation wouldn't qualify to run in the Derby.
On balance, though, I believe the new system will make the prep-race season better than ever. Trainers habitually try to get to the Derby by taking the path of least resistance and ducking the toughest competition. Important showdowns in the prep races have been increasingly rare. Even though most top 3-year-olds are stabled in Florida, the 2012 Fountain of Youth drew only seven starters and the Florida Derby a field of eight.
Under the new system, it's almost impossible for trainers to duck meaningful competition. The Fountain of Youth Stakes, headed by Todd Pletcher's undefeated Violence, drew 11 entrants and the Risen Star will have 14 starters, with half of the field coming from tracks outside the state.
The new framework for the prep races comes in a season that has the potential to produce some bona fide 3-year-old stars. Of course, it is premature to make such any definite judgments; most of the Derby prospects are lightly raced and largely untested. But speed figures suggest that this may be an above-average crop. When I'll Have Another won last year's Derby, he earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 101. Already this winter four colts have recorded a figure of 101 or higher.
Some of the colts regarded as top Derby contenders have done so little that it is hard to take them seriously yet. Violence is No. 3 in the Daily Racing Form's rankings after winning a stakes on a synthetic surface with an easy trip and a low speed figure. Flashback is No. 2 after dominating a four-horse field in California. But there are a few colts who already look like credible Derby contenders. My top four:
1. Normandy Invasion
3. Super Ninety Nine
The last horse on this short list has generated the most buzz. The Pletcher-trained Verrazano has won his two starts at Gulfstream this winter by a combined total of 24 lengths. He appears to have limitless potential, but until a youngster faces stakes competition and encounters some adversity, it's prudent to withhold judgment.
Super Ninety Nine won a fast allowance race at Hollywood Park, followed by an 11-length romp in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park on Monday. He not only has talent, he has Bob Baffert as his trainer, and nobody in the profession is better at getting horses revved up for the first Saturday in May.
Itsmyluckyday is no prodigy like Verrazano; he had raced seven times before anybody thought of him as a Derby horse. But he delivered two authoritative victories in stakes at Gulfstream, including a decisive win over Eclipse Award winner Shanghai Bobby. He looks like a solid distance runner, and he'll have more seasoning than any major Derby contender.
Normandy Invasion delivered what may have been the most eye-catching performance by any member of his generation when he lost the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct in November. Coming from the rear of the field, he made a powerhouse move on the final turn before losing a head-bobbing photo finish with Overanalyze. It was the kind of move that frequently carries a horse to glory on the first Saturday in May. Normandy Invasion makes his 3-year-old debut in the Risen Star, and fans trying to spot the 2013 Kentucky Derby winner should be watching him closely.
Andrew Beyer, who has been The Washington Post's horse racing columnist since 1978, has written four books on racing, including "Picking Winners" which introduced and explained Beyer Speed Figures, a rating system now incorporated in the Daily Racing Form past performances.