After a Kentucky Derby Championship Series of preps that propelled a few under-the-radar types into the spotlight, the cutoff to make the Derby 145 field currently stands at 40 points – the highest threshold since the inception of the scoring system six years ago.
Other than the constant possibility of defections from injury or illness, just about all of those already in the top 20 are expected to line up at Churchill Downs. (Note that those with the same points are ranked in keeping with the tiebreak, non-restricted stakes earnings.)
The first seven on the leaderboard captured a prep worth 100 points to the winner: Tacitus (150 points), Omaha Beach (137.5), Vekoma (110), Plus Que Parfait (104), Roadster (100), By My Standards (100), and Maximum Security (100).
Next come winners of other scoring races (most of whom placed in others too): Game Winner (85 points), Code of Honor (74), Haikal (70), Improbable (65), War of Will (60), Long Range Toddy (53.5), Tax (52), and Cutting Humor (50).
Of those, the one whose status might have been uncertain was War of Will, thanks to his miscue in the opening strides of the Louisiana Derby (G2). But now that the Mark Casse trainee has come back with a pair of solid works at Keeneland, he appears past that blip.
Two others – Code of Honor and Haikal – represent conservative connections not susceptible to Derby fever. But given how pleased Shug McGaughey’s been with Code of Honor since his shift from Florida to Kentucky, the Will Farish homebred is likely to get the green light that he deserves. Haikal, a homebred for Sheikh Hamdan’s Shadwell Stable, has similarly warranted his inclusion.
Long Range Toddy was a subpar sixth in the Arkansas Derby (G1), his first try on the slop. Barring something coming to light, his prior upset of Improbable and fairly consistent performances are entitled to lead owner/breeder Willis Horton to give him his chance in Derby 145.
Numbers 16-20 have all made it by hitting the board in points races: Win Win Win (50 points), Country House (50), Gray Magician (41), and Spinoff (40), rounded out by the Japan Road invitee, Master Fencer, who likewise accrued enough despite not winning a designated prep. The European Road did not produce a contender interested in rolling the dice, so that leaves 19 spots for the domestic hopefuls.
Might there be a defection from this lowest tier? The whole point of Country House’s wheeling back for the Arkansas Derby was to try to score a few more to make the cut. Now that he did so in third, I’d expect his owners (Mrs. Joseph Shields, Guinness McFadden, and LNJ Foxwoods) to take the hard-earned opportunity, unless Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott (who has a premier contender in Tacitus) sees it differently.
Gray Magician’s camp initially indicated that the Derby wasn’t in the mix after his runner-up effort to Plus Que Parfait in the UAE Derby (G2), only to reverse themselves. Could owners Wachtel Stable, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, and Gary Barber (who owns War of Will), and trainer Peter Miller, have a change of heart again?
Spinoff ran a terrific second to By My Standards in the Louisiana Derby, so much so that I wonder if their respective post positions were decisive. By My Standards saved ground all the way from post 5, while Spinoff covered extra yardage throughout from post 10. If the trips were reversed, does Spinoff win the Louisiana Derby? For that reason, I’d be happy to have Spinoff try his luck at Churchill. International owner/breeders Alain and Gerard Wertheimer would presumably let the decision up to Todd Pletcher.
So with that overview of how things stand on the leaderboard, those currently on the outside looking in will need some unexpected decisions or setbacks to the top 20.
At number 21, in the on-deck circle, is the maiden Bodexpress who earned 40 points for chasing Maximum Security in second at every call in the Florida Derby (G1). His non-restricted stakes earnings ($188,000) are less than Spinoff’s ($224,000), leaving him just below the cutoff. Considering that the Gustavo Delgado trainee was beaten in four maiden special weights around one turn before his improbable Florida Derby effort at 71-1, he figures to be in over his head if he draws into the Derby.
Signalman, 22nd on the list at 38 points, won the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) over Plus Que Parfait and placed in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) to Game Winner, the Breeders’ Futurity (G1), and most recently the Blue Grass (G2) to Vekoma. While he’s not set the world alight, the Ken McPeek pupil has factored in six of seven career starts and obviously likes Churchill.
Number 23, Anothertwistafate, is arguably the unluckiest to find himself on the bubble after less than ideal trips when second in the Sunland Park Derby (G3) and Lexington (G3). The well-bred son of Scat Daddy looked like he was going places with a tour de force in the El Camino Real Derby, admittedly on the Golden Gate Fields Tapeta. He’s since proven his dirt aptitude for trainer Blaine Wright, and his tactical speed would make him intriguing. Anothertwistafate has 38 points but is behind Signalman according to the tiebreak ($268,960 versus $496,840 in non-restricted stakes earnings).
Sueno sits in 24th following a quartet of placings in the Sham (G3), Southwest (G3), Louisiana Derby, and Lexington that netted him 32 points. As that resume implies, he’s a good servant for trainer Keith Desormeaux if not quite in the upper echelon of his generation.
The Mark Hennig-trained Bourbon War (25th) might be the best Derby prospect on the bubble, stuck with a total of 31 points. The Tapit blueblood split Code of Honor and Vekoma when rallying for second in the Fountain of Youth, earlier beat Cutting Humor (the Sunland Derby winner) in an allowance, and most recently closed for fourth in a Florida Derby that did not set up for him at all.
Instagrand (26th with 30 points) remains a serious talent after two fine efforts in defeat, although his unorthodox holiday in the second half of his juvenile campaign may have contributed to his lower place on the leaderboard. Mucho Gusto’s (27th with 24 points) Derby ambitions have been questionable since he skipped the Lexington, and his Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is well-stocked with Roadster, Game Winner, and Improbable. Rounding out the list is a trio with 20 points – the off-form Knicks Go (28th), Lexington winner Owendale (29th), and Pletcher’s Outshine (30th), a strong second to Tacitus in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) but a remote 10th to the same rival in a messy Wood Memorial (G2).
Some historical perspective on the points cutoff:
In 2013, it took a mere 10 points to scrape in at number 20 (that was Giant Finish, who wound up 10th behind Orb). The prerequisite doubled to 20 points in 2014, and Commanding Curve, the runner-up to California Chrome, was the last one to make the cut. He got in by the tiebreak by a margin of only $2,000 from the also-eligible Pablo Del Monte. In 2015, American Pharoah’s year, Keen Ice sneaked in with 22 points and finished seventh.
More points have been required the past three years. In 2016, Mo Tom needed 32 points, plus the tiebreak (over Laoban) to rank number 20, and he checked in eighth. The tiebreak was trotted out again in 2017 to separate Sonneteer (who ultimately ran 16th) and also-eligible Royal Mo, both scoring 30 points. In 2018, Instilled Regard got in with 29 points and finished fourth to Justify.
Anothertwistafate, a “bubble horse” at number 23 on the leaderboard, shown winning the El Camino Real Derby (c) Vassar Photography/Shane Micheli