LITTLE ROCK — Preparing for the beginning of live racing at Oaklawn Park on Friday and the track’s proven path to the Triple Crown races, think 10-50-100.
Points are the new and improved version of graded earnings, the previous measuring stick for securing one of the 20 spots in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby. Now, anybody can follow along. Previously, only money mattered and to decipher a result with the Derby in mind, the calculation required knowing the total purse and doing the math to provide 60 percent to the winner, 20 percent to the runner-up, 10 percent to third, and so on.
In addition, graded money was graded money whether the race was a Grade I, II, or III. Distance of a graded race was immaterial. So, too, whether it was during the calendar year of the Kentucky Derby or the previous year when the competitors were only 2.
According to a survey commissioned by Churchill Downs, more than 80 percent of sports fans didn’t know how horses qualified for the Derby. Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has forgotten more about horses than I’ll ever know, is wrong when he scoffs at the points system. It is much cleaner, with three dozen specific qualifying races instead of more than 100 graded events, and a minimum distance of one mile.
Under the previous system, in place since 1986, the winner of the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November clinched a spot in the Derby the following May with that one performance worth $600,000. This year, Juvenile winner Shanghai Bobby earned only 10 points, a mere pittance when there are eight races worth 50 points to the winner in the coming months and seven more with a take-home of 100 points in the weeks prior to the Derby.
The first of the 3-year-old races was Saturday in California and the winner of the Sham Stakes was Goldencents, co-owned by Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino’s stable. The colt also won a rich race in Louisiana and ran third in New York and he leads the standings, but only with 24 points.
The winner of the $600,000 Rebel at Oaklawn on March 16 will more than double that total. A month later, the winner of the $1 million Arkansas Derby will bank 100 points. All told, Oaklawn’s four Derby prep races offer a total of 289 points — same as four races at Santa Anita — and more than any other track.
Bob Baffert, who won the Arkansas Derby with Bodemeister last year and who has enjoyed an extraordinary amount of success at Oaklawn, trained the second- and third-place finishers in the weekend race in California and it would be no surprise to see Dan’s Legacy or Manando travel to Arkansas.
Last year, Secret Circle ran second in the Sham and then double-dipped at Oaklawn, winning the Southwest and the Rebel. In today’s world, those victories would be worth 60 points.
Oaklawn’s series begins Jan. 21 with a 10-4-2-1 points race named after Arkansas Derby-Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner Smarty Jones.
Already, there is buzz about Brown Almighty because of a nice resume at 2, some fast recent workouts at Oaklawn, and his Arkansas owners.
Brown Almighty, son of 2008 Derby-Preakness winner Big Brown, had two firsts and two seconds with excuses in his first four races of 2012, all on the grass. The connections thought enough of Brown Almighty to run him in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf in November. He finished ninth and accumulated a lengthy comment about a troubled trip.
Also possible for the Smarty Jones are Texas Bling, who was 128-1 when he won a $300,000 race in Oklahoma in December, and Officer Alex, who upset the favorite in something called the Pennsylvania Nursery last month.
At this point, all three are sitting on a goose-egg.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.