What a difference a horse makes -- a Kentucky Derby-winning horse. They know all too well in Pennsylvania, where Smarty Jones resuscitated the state's racing and breeding programs. His Derby win in 2004, coupled with his subsequent bid for the Triple Crown, got the attention of the state's lawmakers, who enacted legislation that increased gaming in the state, a portion of which was earmarked for racing, thus fueling a spectacular rise in purses and monies available to breeders.
While the implementation of those programs, and the acknowledgement that racing was the core component, sometimes may seem lost in the haze of history a mere six years later, it is unquestionable that Smarty Jones was the catalyst.
So, too, was Mine That Bird the catalyst in getting the Sunland Derby over the top as a graded stakes race. For several years, the race, known as the WinStar Derby, offered plenty of money to 3-year-olds. What it did not offer was graded stakes money, the critical component toward eligibility to the Kentucky Derby in an era when owners and trainers seem more worried about getting into the race, let alone winning.
Sunland Park would get either horses who were late developers and not serious Derby contenders or horses who had made enough graded stakes money in previous races so that running at Sunland was not detrimental.
Mine That Bird was the latter. Having made plenty of graded cash in Canada as a 2-year-old, he prepped for the 2009 Derby at Sunland last year. He finished fourth in the WinStar Derby. But when Mine That Bird scored a 50-1 upset in the Kentucky Derby, then ran well in the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, that gave the American Graded Stakes Committee the push it needed to upgrade the race from ungraded to a Grade 3.
So this Sunday, the Sunland Derby will be a graded stakes race for the first time, making it a far more critical Kentucky Derby prep than in years past. Because Sunland's purses are enhanced by slots revenue, its Derby purse is a cool $800,000, making it the second-richest prep in North America, behind only next month's $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. It's the third-richest overall when factoring in the $2 million United Arab Emirates Derby at Meydan in Dubai. The winner gets $480,000, enough to easily make the Derby field. Second place is $160,000. That kind of loot goes a long way toward making the Kentucky Derby and is a reason why nine 3-year-olds were entered in the race Wednesday.
This year's field is headed by Conveyance, who, despite being unbeaten, has been overshadowed not only on Derby lists but in his own barn. Just down the shed row at trainer Bob Baffert's barn is Lookin At Lucky, last year's Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male.
Conveyance has won all four of his starts and has shown versatility, winning at three tracks. He has won a pair of graded stakes, the San Rafael at Santa Anita and the Southwest at Oaklawn Park. For him, money is not the object this weekend. Baffert said he believes Conveyance ran his best race yet on dirt in the Southwest, so running again on dirt made Sunland a tempting spot.
"I would have run him there even if it was ungraded, because he's already in," Baffert said. "The race at Oaklawn was pretty impressive. He was used hard from the outside and put away some pretty good horses. The next day, he was just an animal. At Santa Anita, he ran a fluky race. You have to go slow on the synthetics. He couldn't do his thing."
"His thing" is getting to the lead with his natural speed and improving his position. Conveyance has led from start to finish every time, with the exception of being briefly headed at the top of the stretch in the San Rafael.
"He's pretty aggressive," Baffert said. "He's got a high cruising speed."
The other morning at Santa Anita, after Conveyance galloped by during a routine training day, Baffert said, "He looks great. He's growing, filling out. He's a big son of a gun."
Conveyance, a colt by Indian Charlie, was purchased as a yearling for $240,000 by the Thoroughbred Legends partnership. After his first two starts, he was sold privately to the Zabeel Racing International of Sheikh Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai but remained with Baffert.
Sheikh Rashid was eager to run in the UAE Derby but left the decision to Baffert. Keeping Conveyance on dirt was Baffert's top priority.
"Sheikh Rashid left it up to me. He said that if it worked, he would like to run in the Dubai Derby," Baffert said. "If it was like last year's track, when it was dirt, I might have taken him there and taken a chance. But I think he's a Derby horse, and I want to keep him on dirt."
Baffert is returning to his roots. He won his first $100,000 race, while training Quarter Horses, in the Sunland Fall Derby.
"I thought that was the end of the world. I thought that was it," he said. "I drove back and forth from Tucson to there. I was stabled at Rillito. That's when I used to drive to races, not fly. I was on a super budget."
Ice Box and Pleasant Prince, the one-two finishers in last Saturday's Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, both earned spots in this week's top 20 of Derby Watch. Ice Box is 15-1 on the Kentucky Derby future line of Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. Pleasant Prince is 30-1 on Watchmaker's line.
To make room for the newcomers, Dave in Dixie and Radiohead were dropped. Radiohead ran poorly in the Florida Derby. Although Dave in Dixie was not the longest shot on Watchmaker's Derby Watch line last week, he was dropped because those below him have more graded stakes earnings, and that will become an even more critical aspect in determining the Derby field, and the Derby Watch list, as Derby Day nears. Dave in Dixie will get one more chance to earn enough money to get back on the list, but, for now, he's out. Rule, third in the Florida Derby, was raised from 12-1 to 15-1 on Watchmaker's line.
ON THE BUBBLE
This figures to be a pivotal week on the road to the Derby, what with four graded stakes races, three - the Louisiana Derby, Lane's End Stakes, and United Arab Emirates Derby - on Saturday, and the Sunland Derby on Sunday. All four races have enough prize money to basically be Win and You're In races for the Derby. There should be several newcomers out of these races making up the Derby Watch list next week.