LITTLE ROCK — Vyjack, Orb, Verrazano, and Hear The Ghost are the Duke, Indiana, Louisville, and Gonzaga of the Kentucky Derby field. If healthy on May 4, those four thoroughbreds are in the starting gate at Churchill Downs, much like the Blue Devils, Hoosiers, Cardinals, and Zags are locks for the NCAA Tournament and likely No. 1 seeds.
It is there the comparison between getting one of 20 spots at Churchill and one of the 68 in basketball bracket ends. In basketball, there are 20 or more teams that are in the tournament even though they might have finished as low as fifth or sixth in the conference standings. In racing, the squeeze is on all hopefuls outside the top four. For those dozens of thoroughbreds, a maximum of two races remain. To be certain of moving on to Louisville, they must finish first in a race like the Rebel on Saturday at Oaklawn Park or finish one-two in one of the seven bigger races that begin March 30.
There is no margin for error.
Under the new system for qualifying for the Derby, 50 points goes to the Rebel winner and the math says that will be good enough. The runner up gets 20 points and would need something from the Arkansas Derby on April 13 where the breakdown is 100-40-20-10.
Among the 11 entered Saturday, Oxbow is the leader with 16 points. Three in the Rebel have 10 points each — Den’s Legacy, Super Ninety Nine, and Will Take Charge.
Owned by the Westrock Stable of Joe and Scott Ford of Little Rock, Den’s Legacy is one of those who would already be in the Derby field if money was still the qualifying standard. Never worse than third in four consecutive graded races, Den’s Legacy has $265,000 in graded earnings. Den’s Legacy, who has run all 10 of his races in California, is one five in the Rebel field who have gravitated to Arkansas in search of points.
Not only are there points and $360,000 to the winner, the timing of the Rebel is such that a horse could go on to a 100-point race in New York, California, or Kentucky, or remain in Arkansas.
Up against the limited number of opportunities and saddled with a piddling number of points, three entered the Rebel despite finishing 13 1-2 to 21 1-2 lengths behind Super Ninety Nine in the Southwest at Oaklawn a month ago. Desperate to explain the poor performances, connections honed in on the sloppy racetrack on Feb. 18.
Todd Pletcher, whose barnfull of Derby hopefuls includes Verrazano, considered three for the Rebel and decided on Delhomme, who is playing catch-up. The colt has not raced since a third-place finish in New York on Nov. 24.
Virtually all of those entered have shown enough at one time or another to convince their owners-trainers they deserve a shot. Confidence in Pletcher and Steve Asmussen and Ron Ellis is reason enough to back lightly raced horses such as Delhomme, Carve, and Treasury Bill who have run a total of eight times and never been out of the money.
Trained by Bob Baffert, who has won the Kentucky Derby three times, Super Ninety Nine will start from the outside. He has enough speed that jockey Rafael Bejarano should be able to look left and put the colt in good position.
Baffert also entered Title Contender, who was not competitive in two tries against top-notch competition last year. The jury is out on the quality of competition in the Rebel although I suspect there is more than one Kentucky Derby starter in the field.
If Super Ninety Nine is the real deal and avoids traffic problems, he will take some beating.
If he was simply the beneficiary of a surface that favored his front-running style, the race is wide open.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.