When trainer D. Wayne Lukas said “you can’t have a straw in your path” when trying to win the Kentucky Derby, he should know. Lukas has won the Derby four times in his storied Hall of Fame career.
I bring this up right now because a lot of trainers in Southern California with potential Derby horses have a lot more than straw in their path. Record-setting rainfall this winter in Arcadia has played havoc with the Santa Anita Park main track.
To make a long story short, the main track was closed for racing and training beginning on March 4. Only in the last couple of days have timed workouts resumed. Live racing is tentatively set to return on Friday, March 22.
The San Felipe Stakes, a key prep for the Santa Anita Derby and Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, was set for March 9 at Santa Anita. It had to be canceled. Most of those horses have been re-routed to Oaklawn Park for the Rebel Stakes on March 16.
Oaklawn Park management is getting well-deserved kudos for stepping up to help Santa Anita horsemen. What Oaklawn Park did was put up another $500,000 in purse money to split the $1 million Rebel Stakes into two divisions. Each division is now worth $750,000. The 85 Kentucky Derby qualifying points allotted to the Rebel were reduced to 75 percent for each division as well.
Oaklawn officials had hoped for 20 entrants to split into two 10 horse fields, but settled for 19 total entries into the Rebel.
The horses that are shipping in from Santa Anita include Extra Hope (trained by Richard Mandella), Easy Shot (Keith Desormeaux), Galilean (Hollendorfer) and Improbable (Baffert) in the first division of the Rebel.
Those horses alone would have made for a phenomenal edition of the San Felipe. Instead they will contribute to a magnificent stakes program on Saturday at Oaklawn Park.
One other note: Trainer Steve Asmussen has six total runners in the Rebel, two in the first division and four in the second. Without his entries the Rebel could not have been split.
The Kentucky Derby point system has placed a strong emphasis on the Derby prep races in March and April. In past years, 2-year-old stakes carried as much weight as 3-year-old stakes when graded stakes earnings was the barometer.
More and more horsemen are taking their time with their Derby hopefuls. For example, Justify won the Triple Crown last year for trainer Bob Baffert as an unraced 2-year-old. Apollo, the last unraced 2-year-old to win the Derby before Justify, will become a dusty relic.
After the two Rebel Stakes are run on Saturday, the horsemen will face a major fork in the road. The Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, the Santa Anita Derby and the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets at Aqueduct are all on April 6. The Arkansas Derby is on April 13.
Only after those four stakes are run will we know who has enough points to move on to Churchill Downs.
Richard Eng is the author of “Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies”, an introductory book for newcomers to the sport of horse racing. For two decades, he was the turf editor and handicapper for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He still handicaps the Southern California tracks and his picks are for sale at www.racedaylasvegas.com. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @richeng4propick and on Facebook.com.