It is a misnomer to call Saturday’s $1 million Wood Memorial or $750,000 Santa Anita Derby “prep races” for the Kentucky Derby. Until you earn enough Derby points to secure a spot, no one is prepping anymore. You must run well or end up watching the Derby on TV.
The 20 highest-scoring horses will qualify for the May 4 Derby. With 100 Derby points to each winner and 40 to the runner-up, potentially four horses will earn their way to Churchill Downs. The 20 points for third and 10 for fourth could help others get on the bubble.
I suspect trainers and owners are adapting to the new point system as we racing fans are. Derby hopefuls are starting less often and later with the knowledge that 15 stakes run over 70 days hold the keys to getting to Louisville.
The Wood at Aqueduct has an odds-on favorite in Verrazano (4-5). His big win in the Tampa Bay Derby earned him 50 points, easily enough to be among the 20 Derby starters.
Trainer Todd Pletcher has no pressure to win with Verrazano other than to keep the colt undefeated. Vyjack (4-1) also has 50 points, so he, too, is safe for the Derby.
The danger lies with the cusp horses that must run first or second: Normandy Invasion (5-1), Elnaawi (12-1) and Mr Palmer (12-1). I expect big efforts from all three.
The Santa Anita Derby had a late defection in the second choice, San Felipe winner Hear the Ghost. He was declared out Thursday. Co-owner Ted Aroney told the media at Santa Anita Park that Hear the Ghost will be sidelined 90 days, missing a start in the Kentucky Derby, too.
The favorite Flashback (9-5) is a cusp horse with 30 points. Trainer Bob Baffert will leg up a new rider in Garrett Gomez. Baffert has two others in the race — Power Broker (5-1) and Super Ninety Nine (6-1). All three are good enough to make up the trifecta.
The sleeper is Goldencents (6-1) for trainer Doug O’Neill. To his detriment, the colt has been speed crazy. And with 29 points, he is no lock for the Derby field. O’Neill has tried to teach him to rate, something easier said than done.
Most horsemen with Derby bubble horses are rooting for the chalk to prevail. That’s because it would keep the point cutoff lower. With just six point races left, the pressure is really on now to produce.
■ TREASURE ISLAND — On Sunday, Treasure Island will host a qualifier for the 2014 DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship. The entry fee is $500, and three seats are up for grabs. All entry fees will be returned as cash prizes.
■ $10,000 TWIN QUINELLA — A rich $10,000 twin quinella will be offered Saturday at all Station and Fiesta race books.
■ CHAMPIONSHIP AT THE ORLEANS — The Championship at The Orleans will be April 11 to 13. The entry fee is $500, and the top five finishers will receive a berth into the 2014 Horseplayer World Series.
Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick.