View From The Eighth Pole: Weighty Issues On The Derby Trail?

by | 02.05.2018 | 2:14pm
Avery Island was last seen Feb. 3 winning the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct

Kiaran McLaughlin sat in the Gulfstream Park parade ring late Saturday afternoon, soaking in the success of the previous half-hour. Godolphin Racing's Avery Island had made a successful 2018 debut at Aqueduct, winning the Grade 3 Withers by two lengths. Victory gave the son of Street Sense 10 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. A few minutes later, Take Charge Paula – a Take Charge Indy filly that only recently entered the native Kentuckian's barn via private purchase – scampered to a 3 1/2-length win in the G3 Forward Gal Stakes. She earned 10 qualifying points for the Kentucky Oaks for her owner, Peter Deutsch.

Circling the Gulfstream Park ring was McLaughlin's G2 Kentucky Jockey Club winner Enticed, a colt by Medaglia d'Oro out of the multiple Grade 1 winner It's Tricky. The Godolphin runner was the 9-5 favorite in the G3 Holy Bull. Victory here would be worth 10 Kentucky Derby points.

Ten points is not going to get a horse into the Kentucky Derby's 20-horse starting field – somewhere between 30 and 40 usually does the trick. But those 10 points – even the four points for finishing second – can make the difference between an attempt at the Run for the Roses and being on the outside looking in.

Enticed, as one of two graded stakes winners in the Holy Bull field, was carrying 122 pounds, six more than the rest of the field was assigned under the allowance conditions of the race.

In the Withers, Avery Island also carried 122, giving weight to all but one of his rivals – G1 Champagne winner Firenze Fire.

In the Kentucky Derby, all of the 3-year-old colts and geldings carry 126 pounds. On the road to the Derby, however, many of the races are run under allowance conditions that punish success. McLaughlin would like to see that changed.

“Shouldn't all these points races be equal weights?” he asked. ”I didn't get any points for it, but I get punished for (Avery Island) winning the Nashua (a G2 race at Aqueduct in November that isn't on the official Road to the Kentucky Derby).

Enticed went out and ran a clunker, finishing fourth and earning a single Kentucky Derby point. Along with two points earned for finishing third in the Champagne and 10 for the Kentucky Jockey Club win, Enticed now sits in ninth place, with 13 points. Avery Island, who previously earned four points for a second in the G2 Remsen, is just above Enticed with 14.

They'll need to do more – especially when the races with 50 and then 100 points to the winners begin – but every point matters when you've got designs on the Kentucky Derby.

Audible, the Holy Bull winner, is a New York-bred by Into Mischief who was trying stakes company for the first time and carrying just 116 pounds. Getting a perfect trip under Javier Castellano, the Todd Pletcher trainee turned back a challenge from G1 Breeders' Futurity winner Free Drop Billy at the top of the stretch, then drew off easily to win by 5 ½ lengths for the partnership of WinStar Farm, SF Bloodstock and the China Horse Club.

This begs the question: Does weight really matter?

Yes, it does, though it didn't determine the outcome of the Holy Bull.

The rule of thumb used by some racing secretaries is that two pounds equals as much as one length going around two turns, so it would have taken a lot more than six additional pounds to prevent Audible from winning the Holy Bull.

But McLaughlin has a valid point. The Kentucky Derby point system is designed to get the best 20 horses into the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. Allowance conditions in a number of the Kentucky Derby point races are designed to entice as many starters as possible by tilting the playing field in favor of those that have accomplished the least – allowing them to carry less weight.

That just doesn't make sense.

The Lasix security blanket

In the inaugural Pegasus World Cup Invitational in 2017, track owner and horseman Frank Stronach introduced a reward in the form of a five-pound weight break for those horses that would race without the anti-bleeding diuretic Lasix. Only one horse – longshot Eragon from Argentina – raced without the “L” next to its name in the program. Eragon was brought to the Pegasus by Jim McIngvale and his sister-in-law trainer Laura Wohlers. McIngvale raced sprint champion Runhappy without the benefit of race-day medication.

Eragon, sent off at 82-1 odds, was eased after trailing throughout while hopelessly overmatched.

For the 2018 running of the $16-million Pegasus, conditions were changed to increased the weight break to seven pounds for those competing without race-day Lasix.

There were zero takers this time around.

Seven pounds is not inconsequential going a mile and an eighth. Using the aforementioned racing secretary formula of two pounds per length, a seven-pound weight break certainly could have put runner-up West Coast – beaten 2 ½ lengths by favored Gun Runner – much closer at the finish.

The difference between first and second place was $5.4 million.

It would have been a calculated gamble for trainer Bob Baffert and owners Gary and Mary West – or any participants in the Pegasus for that matter – to race without the security blanket that Lasix provides. Gun Runner raced without it when second to Arrogate in the 2017 Dubai World Cup and West Coast will race Lasix-free if his connections opt to run in Dubai this year. They have no choice in the matter, since race-day medication is prohibited in Dubai, as well as in Europe, Asia, Australia and an increasing number of South American races.

There was a time, not that long ago, when top horses in the United States raced without Lasix, too. And they didn't get a seven-pound weight break.

Breeders' Cup Derby: Just say 'no'

A couple of weeks ago we wrote about a proposal from within the Breeders' Cup board of directors for a fairly radical change in the championship program: adding a Breeders' Cup Derby for 3-year-olds and separating the Breeders' Cup Classic from championship weekend, running it in December in hopes of getting the BC Derby winner and the best older horses. The Daily Racing Form subsequently reported another proposed change: moving the entire Breeders' Cup to early December, where its Saturday races would not go up against college football.

We polled our readers and they came back with a resounding “no” to both ideas. Only 3.4 percent of the 2,200 total votes liked the BC Derby and 6.5 percent thought moving the Breeders' Cup championships to December was a good move. Forty-one percent actually wanted to return to a one-day Breeders' Cup (it was last run over one day in 2006), while 49 percent said they preferred the status quo.

Getting 90 percent of people in the horse business to agree on anything – the day of the week, the color of the sky, whether the sun sets in the west – is nearly impossible. When 90 percent of them say you've got a bad idea, it's time to move on.

That's my view from the eighth pole.

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