HOT SPRINGS — Critical of the Kentucky Derby point system since its inception, trainer D. Wayne Lukas now has a legitimate reason to complain.
Instead of preparing a well-rested Strong Mandate for the Kentucky Derby, the Lukas-trained colt is worn out and the 78-year-old horseman is simply out of the race that he has won four times.
Lukas lost an opportunity to expand his record to 48 starters in the Kentucky Derby when Strong Mandate was an unpunished last of eight in the $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on Saturday. Sitting on 11 points, Strong Mandate needed at least the 20 points awarded the third-place finisher to be guaranteed one of the 20 spots in the starting gate at Churchill Downs on May 3.
Instead of Strong Mandate crashing the party in Louisville or favored Bayern qualifying with a first- or second-place finish, Danza and Ride On Curlin ran one-two.
At 41-1, Danza was considered the lesser the of trainer Todd Pletcher’s two horses in the field. Danza’s stakes resume consisted of a third last August.
The thing that must gall Lukas is Strong Mandate would have qualified for the 2014 Derby by early November of 2013 under the graded-earnings system that had been in place since 1986. In that case, Lukas could have spent the spring picking his spots.
Instead, Strong Mandate chased points at Oaklawn in the Southwest, the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby.
Seven months ago, Strong Mandate won the Hopeful at prestigious Saratoga and banked $180,000. Two months later, he was third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and upped his bankroll by $200,000.
Despite all that money, Strong Mandate had only five points because the Grade 1 Hopeful was only seven furlongs and not deemed point-worthy by the powers that be. Part of the reason for the switch to points was to limit the number of qualifying races and to set a minimum distance of one mile.
Early in 2013, Lukas was asked about the move.
“There were two things I thought you couldn’t screw up … Coca Cola and the Kentucky Derby … and now we just have Coca Cola,” he said.
Although Lukas, an Oaklawn regular, will not have a horse in the Kentucky Derby, the Hot Springs racetrack will be well represented in Louisville. In fact, four of the Derby starters could come out of Oaklawn’s series for 3-year-olds.
Before the Blue Grass at Keeneland and the Arkansas Derby, two horses were tied for 19th with 20 points each. More than an hour before the Arkansas Derby, the first two finishers in Kentucky crashed the top 20 and two shared the 19th spot with 24 points each.
In much the same way, the outcome at Oaklawn shuffled the standings.
Danza earned 100 points and Ride On Curlin netted 50. Tapiture, fourth on Saturday for 10 points, was already assured a spot with his first in the Southwest and second to Hoppertunity in the Rebel. Even though Hoppertunity went back to California for the Santa Anita Derby, the Rebel qualifies him as an Oaklawn representative in the Triple Crown races.
The cover of Oaklawn’s 2014 media guide explains why Bob Baffert shipped Bayern from California, why Pletcher sent Commissioner and Danza from Florida, and Mark Casse shipped Conquest Titan from Kentucky. The $1 million purse is nice and the 100-50-20-10 point distribution is as good as it gets.
But, there is more.
Out front, just above the picture of 2013 Preakness winner Oxbow are the words:
10 TRIPLE CROWN RACE WINNERS
Oxbow was trained by Lukas. Come the first Saturday in May, Lukas will be on the sideline, maybe mulling the words of Casse who said recently, “It really doesn’t matter who was good in November, December or January. It matters who’s good in April and May.
On Saturday, a longshot named Danza was almost five lengths better than any of the others.
Harry King is a sports columnist. His email isHLeonK42@gmail.com.