Horse racing–even at the highest levels–is a very strange sport. Sometimes it makes less sense than professional wrestling from a country in which you don’t speak the language. Saturday was a perfect example as two Kentucky Derby qualification races underscored these extremes. The big event of the day was the Grade 1 $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. This is a big prep race in any year awarding 100 qualification points to the winner and 40-20-10 points to the second through fourth place finishers. This year’s Florida Derby may have been the most hotly anticipated Derby prep race in several years as the (arguably) two top favorites for the ‘Run For The Roses’ went head to head. Ultimately, the duel between Mohaymen and Nyquist was more of a rout. Doug O’Neill’s Nyquist trounced the field leaving Mohaymen to finish fourth. Both horses are being pointed to the Kentucky Derby so Mohaymen will have a shot at redemption on the first Saturday in May.
The other Kentucky Derby prep race took place over 1,000 miles North of Gulfstream Park and offered none of the dramatic storylines found in the Florida Derby. The race favorite was a once promising three year old named Airoforce who was installed as a 3-1 morning line chalk. Airoforce won a rain soaked 2015 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last fall at Churchill Downs which gave him considerable credibility as a rising three year old. That credibility was destroyed on February 20 when he finished dead last in the Risen Star an absurd forty lengths behind the winner. And he was the race favorite in the Spiral Stakes at Kentucky’s Turfway Park. There would be no iconic story arc for Airoforce, however, as he finished 10th in a field of 14. The race was won by 23-1 longshot Oscar Nominated owned by the well regarded Ken and Sarah Ramsey. Oscar Nominated is now heading to the Kentucky Derby even though it’ll cost the Ramseys a $200,000 supplemental fee–the veteran horse owners thought so little of his prospects that they didn’t spend $600 to nominate him to the Triple Crown along with eight of their other horses.
Turfway Park in the Kentucky Suburbs of Cincinnati isn’t exactly Del Mar or Saratoga and the Spiral Stakes is a strange Derby qualification race for a number of reasons. The Grade 3, $500,000 Spiral Stakes offers just 50 points toward Kentucky Derby qualification for the winner. That’s not unusual in itself but it’s the only prep race run after mid March awarding fewer than 100 points to the winner (not including the April 16 Lexington at Keeneland which awards 10 qualification points to the winner). Turfway is also one of the dwindling number of North American tracks to operate a synthetic surface (Polytrack) main track. There are others on the Derby qualification campaign schedule but early season races at Golden Gate (Tapeta) and Toronto’s Woodbine (Polytrack) award only 10 points max.