It is down to the wire for horses to earn enough points to be among the 20 starters for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 4.
On Saturday, the Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park each will award 170 points among its top four finishers. And then horsemen will have two final shots in the Lexington at Keeneland on April 20 and the Derby Trial at Churchill on April 27. Each race will award 34 more points.
Currently 12 horses have 42 points or more and safely are in the Derby field. Below them are bubble horses facing a potential cutoff as low as 30 points.
Those bubble horses were aided by injuries to Flashback, Hear the Ghost, Violence and Ive Struck a Nerve, who all had enough points to make the Derby.
Uncaptured (7-2) is the logical favorite in the Blue Grass. In past years, with five stakes wins and $394,674 in graded money, Uncaptured safely would be in the Derby. Not this year. If he runs out of the money at Keeneland, his 30 points might not be enough.
And ever since Keeneland installed a Polytrack synthetic surface, horses with grass resumes move way up. Thus, keep an eye on such turf horses as Java’s War (4-1), Charming Kitten (10-1), Balance the Books (15-1) and Rydilluc (4-1). In fact, Balance the Books is my choice for a major upset.
The Arkansas Derby is on dirt at Oaklawn. War Academy (2-1) is the favorite due more to his trainer, Bob Baffert, than his resume. Baffert colts have dominated the Oaklawn prep races the past few years.
Oxbow (5-2) from the D. Wayne Lukas barn has much more experience than War Academy. He has trained great in Hot Springs and gets Gary Stevens to ride.
My choice is Den’s Legacy (6-1), part of an uncoupled entry from Baffert. How often have you seen the longer price horse in a Baffert uncoupled entry outrun the favored one? A lot. Plus, this colt reminds me of his 1998 Derby winner Real Quiet: a hard trier and improving with each start.
■ DERBY MOUNTS — Jockeys John Velazquez and Javier Castellano made difficult choices regarding which horses they will ride in the Kentucky Derby. Velazquez opted for the undefeated Verrazano for his main client, trainer Todd Pletcher. That opened up the mount on Florida Derby winner Orb that quickly was taken by Joel Rosario.
Castellano chose Wood Memorial runner-up Normandy Invasion for trainer Chad Brown. He vacated the mount on Louisiana Derby winner Revolutionary, who is trained by Pletcher.
■ ORLEANS — A live-money single-day qualifier will be held Sunday in the Mardi Gras ballroom. The entry fee is $100 plus a $400 bankroll to play.
■ PICK THE PONIES — Here’s a reminder to sign up for the popular Pick The Ponies handicapping tournament at LVH the week of the Kentucky Derby. The early bird discount is $450 through April 22.
Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick.