Cash key for Derby hopefuls

March means madness in college basketball. In horse racing, it means a mad scramble among 3-year-olds on the Kentucky Derby trail.

Seven weeks remain until the first leg of the Triple Crown, and the race is on to accumulate purse money from graded stakes. If more than 20 horses enter the May 2 Derby at Churchill Downs, then graded purse earnings will determine who gets in.

On Saturday, four graded stakes (Louisiana Derby, Rebel, San Felipe and Tampa Bay Derby) will buoy the winners’ Derby hopes and dash the dreams of most others. The importance of earning graded money has been magnified in recent years as many key contenders make fewer starts.

My top Derby colt, Patena, for example, has not raced in nine weeks and has only $20,000 in graded earnings from five career starts. If Patena wins the Louisiana Derby, he would earn $360,000 — a placing is worth $120,000. I’m guessing it will take about $200,000 to make the Derby field, so Patena is in nearly a must-win situation.

The scenario is more dire for a colt such as Dunkirk, who owns two impressive wins but no graded earnings. His next start is in two weeks in the $750,000 Florida Derby. Dunkirk must win that race because he has run out of time, while Patena could squeeze in another prep race if need be.

Three of Saturday’s race favorites — Friesan Fire (Louisiana Derby), Old Fashioned (Rebel) and Pioneer of the Nile (San Felipe) — probably have enough graded earnings to make the Derby field. This takes pressure off their connections because an upset loss Saturday will not derail their Derby plans.

The most likely winner of a Saturday prep is Old Fashioned (Rebel). The Larry Jones trainee drew the advantageous rail at Oaklawn Park and has speed to protect his position. His jockey, Ramon Dominguez, is about as good as it gets.

The most intriguing long shot is Sumo (Tampa Bay Derby). He is by Fusaichi Pegasus, so distance is not a problem. Sumo ran second in the Sam F. Davis in a breakthrough race. The Graham Motion colt always has been highly regarded and finally might be getting it mentally.

BIG ‘CAP, SMALL CROWD — A disappointing crowd of 31,496 attended Big ‘Cap Day on Saturday at Santa Anita Park. The track’s vice president of marketing, Allen Gutterman, remarked tongue in cheek, “The bankruptcy promotion didn’t work quite as well as Snow Day,” a popular promotion in which 200 tons of snow was placed in the infield.

Magna, which owns the Arcadia, Calif., track, filed for bankruptcy days before the Big ‘Cap card.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com.

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