Things are starting to heat up as the Kentucky Derby draws nearer. Yes, the Kentucky Derby is still two months away, but for many of the contenders it's only one or two more starts away. The Road to the Kentucky Derby points system kicks into phase two, the first leg of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, this weekend with the running of the Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII) at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla. and the Risen Star Stakes (GII) at Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans, La.
The new Kentucky Derby points system replaces the graded stakes earnings system as the determiner of Kentucky Derby entrants. In the first phase, the Kentucky Derby Prep Season that concluded last week, the top four finishers in 19 pre-determined races were awarded points of 10-4-2-1, respectively.
A total of five Grade II and three Grade III races comprise the first leg of phase two in which the top four finishers in the pre-determined races are awarded points of 50-20-10-5, respectively. The second leg of phase two begins Mar. 30 and includes two Grade II and five Grade I events in which the top four finishers in these pre-determined races will receive points of 100-40-20-10, respectively. The series concludes with two wild card races in which the top four finishers will be awarded 20-8-4-2 points, respectively.
With 50 points on the line, a win in Saturday's Fountain of Youth or Risen Star could guarantee a newcomer a spot in the Kentucky Derby. However, there are contenders in Saturday's races that are already on the board that could elevate their standing on the points ranking with a top four finish. So, if you haven't starting following the Kentucky Derby Trail, now's the time.
The $400,000 1 1/16 mile Risen Star Stakes drew an overflow field of 14 talented three-year-olds, plus an also-eligible. Installed as the morning-line favorite at odds of 5-2, is Chad Brown’s Normandy Invasion. In his last start, the Tapit colt finished second by a nose to Overanalyze in the Grade II Remsen Nov. 24. Although he’ll make his first start as a three-year-old on Saturday, Normandy Invasion has already found his way on several Kentucky Derby top ten lists. Jockey Jose Lezcano, who left a live mount with Majestic Hussar in Gulfstream’s Fountain of Youth, comes to town for the ride.
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas will send out LeComte winner Oxbow. The Awesome Again colt set a moderate pace to win the Grade III event in wire-to-wire fashion by 11 ½ lengths. With the talent in Saturday's field and the Fair Grounds' long stretch, don't expect Oxbow to get the same set-up here. Jockey Jon Court, who was aboard for the LeComte win, comes in from Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. to keep with this colt on his path to the Kentucky Derby.
Palace Malice will represent trainer Todd Pletcher who hopes to grab back-to-back wins in the Risen Star, having taken the race last year with El Padrino. Although Palace Malice has one win and has finished second in two of his three lifetime starts, he’s earned Brisnet speed figures over 100 in those defeats, plus comes in off a bullet work. This son of Curlin looks better than his 8-1 morning-line odds would suggest.
A couple of longshots worth a second look is Steve Asmussen’s Proud Strike and Gennadi Dorochenko’s Bethel. Yes, they’re on the extreme ends of longshot with Proud Strike at 8-1 on the morning line and Bethel at 50-1, but both are lightly raced and include a person of interest among their connections.
Proud Strike exits a 7 ½ length maiden victory over an off-track Jan. 12 at the Fair Grounds. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens will be aboard to help this son of Smart Strike get on the Kentucky Derby points board. Stevens returned to racing Jan. 6 after a nearly eight-year retirement and has already grabbed a stakes win. In his last attempt at the Risen Star in 2005, he nailed down a victory aboard Scipion.
Bethel’s only win came at the distance and on the track in a $30,000 maiden claimer Jan. 27. In his four lifetime starts, he’s had three trainers and will get his fourth new jockey, Iram Diego, on Saturday. There’s not much that stands out in Bethel’s past performances to think he’ll have a shot in this field. However, his trainer is the same Fair Grounds-based trainer that shocked the world last year when he saddled Louisiana Derby longshot winner Hero of Order. Not that Dorochenko can strike gold again, but it warrants a mention.
The remainder of the field includes Bob Baffert’s Code West, Joe McAnally’s Agent, LeComte runner-up Golden Soul, Tom Amoss’s Mylute, David Bank’s Hardrock Eleven, fourth-place finisher in the LeComte Ive Struck a Nerve, He’s Had Enough who’ll likely scratch in favor of the Fountain of Youth, Bashford Manor winner Circle Unbroken, and Al Stall’s duo Departing and Sunbean.
The race is the 10th on Fair Ground’s Saturday card with a scheduled post time of 5:57 p.m. It can be seen on HRTV and TVG. Free PPs for both the Fountain of Youth and Risen Star stakes are provided by Brisnet .
Photo: Courtesy Fair Grounds Race Course