LITTLE ROCK — Using a select group of races to qualify horses for the Kentucky Derby, the new and simple system created a deliciously confounding puzzle for handicappers.
Getting a spot in the May 4 Derby is all about points these days and 15 of the top 16 on the list were either first or second in their last race. With so many horses in good and recent form, there will be live longshots in the field of 20.
No longer will there be a participant that earned a wad of graded money at 2 and was so-so at 3.
Separated by a head in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November, Shanghai Bobby and He’s Had Enough banked $1.2 million and $400,000 — plenty to secure a spot in the Derby in previous years when qualifying was based on graded earnings. Shanghai Bobby did enough this year to up his total to 24 points — sufficient to get in the Derby — but he is sidelined with an injury discovered days after finishing fifth in the Florida Derby.
He’s Had Enough has earned more money than 10 of the 20 points leaders, but only has the six points from last year and won’t be in the Derby. Flown to Dubai in pursuit of points in March, he was 11th in a 12-horse field. Prior to that, he was fifth, third, and fifth — a horse that would be tossed out by a handicapper.
No. 1 through No. 7 on the points list are the winners of 100-point races in Florida, New York, California, Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Dubai. No. 8 is Wyjack who won a race in New York and then was third in a more prestigious race.
From No. 9 through No. 16 are winners of 50-point races in Arkansas, Kentucky, and New Mexico, plus second-place finishers from the biggest races in Florida, Kentucky, New York, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
The favorite at something more than 4-1 is likely to be Verrazano, the unbeaten winner of the Wood Memorial in New York. Based on his smashing performance in the Arkansas Derby, Bodemeister was the favorite in the 2012 Kentucky Derby at $4.20-to-1. Only two other horses were less than 10-1.
Willis Horton, owner of Rebel winner Will Take Charge, believes there might be as many as five horses at less than 10-1 on May 4 and thinks Verrazano “is one of the weaker ones in the top five.”
Naturally, Horton includes his colt in the upper echelon. “Goldencents, Orb, Will Take Charge, that’s the kind of the way I got it figured,” he said. “Honestly, the only horse I dread is Orb. He was pretty impressive in the Florida Derby and the distance won’t bother him at all.”
Horton was at Oaklawn Park last Saturday for Overanalyze’s victory in the Arkansas Derby and watched several replays of Java’s War winning the Blue Grass. Neither winner impressed the 73-year-old Horton.
Although not an end-all, speed figures support Horton. Overanalyze’s 88 was the lowest for an Arkansas Derby winner in more than 20 years and Java’s War recorded a mundane 89.
Only a few in the Derby field have topped 100.
Once Will Take Charge secured a spot in the Derby by winning the Rebel in March, Horton began contemplating going straight to Churchill Downs. believing a well-rested animal is the way to take on the Triple Crown grind. Briefly, he considered running last weekend. Instead, his colt will attempt to become the first since 1950 to win the Derby without racing more than 1 1/16 miles.
One-mile works at Oaklawn and Churchill Downs, plus his breeding will get him to the finish line, Horton said.
“If my theory works out, I’ll be the smartest s ——— in the country, but if it don’t I will be the dumbest …,” he said.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.