It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

When the Kentucky Derby points system was first instituted for qualification into the race in 2013, the news release read that the goal of the new system was to “ensure our longstanding mission of assembling the finest group of 3-year-olds in the starting gate for a race at the classic distance of 1 1/4 miles on the first Saturday in May.”

To get the best horses to go the classic distance, the system would reward more points as the races stretched out in distance and as they got closer to the Derby. This was a stark contrast to the old system that put runners in the Derby gate based on lifetime graded stakes earnings, no matter if earnings were from sprints or from way back in the horse’s juvenile season.

The new system would essentially eliminate sprinters who couldn’t get the 1 1/4-mile distance and could only do damage to the pace by speeding up the early fractions. Churchill Downs wanted horses that proved that they could win graded stakes at a 1 1/16 miles (to get 50 points) or 1 1/8 miles (to get 100) to get into the Derby gate.

And that’s how it was for all races for the first five years of the Derby points system. But in 2018, something changed, and a one-turn, 1-mile race slipped in as a 50-point awarder.

Horse Racing Picks

How could this happen? Well, Churchill Downs establishes the Derby points race schedule in September, the year before the Derby. When the schedule was set for qualification to the 2018 Derby, the New York Racing Authority (NYRA) had already announced that the Aqueduct winter season would be moved from the inner track for the first time since 1975, but it hadn’t released its own stakes schedule yet. Subsequently, when NYRA went ahead with plans to run that year’s meet on the newly-renovated main track, it decreased the distance of the Gotham Stakes (G3) from 1 1/16 miles because a race of that distance cannot be run on the main track’s configuration. The Gotham had been run as a 1 1/16-mile race from 2006 to 2017 on the Aqueduct inner track.

Without knowing ahead of time, Churchill Downs wound up awarding 50-20-10-5 points to the top four finishers of a 1-mile, one-turn race for the first time in Derby points system history.

It slipped through the system last year due to timing, but surely something would be rectified for the 2019 Derby, right?

Think again. We have a one-turn, 1-mile race giving out 85 total points to the Derby this Saturday. Stretch-out sprinters are shipping from all over the country to come to New York in the dead of winter to make their Derby dreams reality.

Is it really a bad thing, though? Let’s dig into the probables for this year’s race and start sorting this all out!

Kentucky Derby Contenders

Holy Gotham, Batman

It’s never a bad thing when you get a full field for a big stakes race, and this year’s Gotham gate will be loaded.

Headlined by the return of Instagrand, who hasn’t raced since winning the Best Pal Stakes (G2) last August, the Gotham has suddenly become one of the year’s most anticipated races.

For Instagrand’s purposes, this distance is the perfect comeback opportunity for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and owner Larry Best (who operates as OXO Equine). Instagrand has only raced at 5 and 6 furlongs in his two-lifetime starts, so the original plan of stretching him out to two turns off of a long layoff while going 1 1/16 miles in the San Felipe Stakes (G2) became a daunting task, especially with trainer Bob Baffert pointing his top two Derby prospects – Game Winner and Improbable – to that race.

Even though he has to ship cross-country for the race, Hollendorfer said in a NYRA press release, “The distance of the race seems to be a better place to start going a one-turn mile rather than a mile and 1/16 at Santa Anita. He’s been off for a while.”

Instagrand isn’t the only runner shipping in from the west coast, as Baffert will send Much Better along for the ride. After moving from the turf and fading to a third-place finish while running the two-turn mile configuration at Santa Anita Park in January’s Sham Stakes (G3), Much Better impressively won in front-running fashion while sprinting at 6 1/2 furlongs in his last race. Baffert told NYRA, “He won his debut sprinting and then we tried him out on the turf, but he’s shown us enough on the dirt where we want to give him another shot to stretch out, and at a mile, this could be a good spot to do it.”

Much Better with jockey Mike Smith winning an allowance at 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita Park on February 9 (Photo: Ernie Belmonte)

Much Better isn’t the only sprinter lining up with Derby hopes. The Swale Stakes (G3) at Gulfstream Park, run at 7 furlongs in early February, may now become a major prep race for the Gotham. This year’s Swale winner Call Paul is a slightly possible Gotham entry, even though he hasn’t been Triple Crown nominated. Call Paul would bring major back class to the Gotham, having won the Saratoga Special Stakes (G2) last summer. His closing kick may set up perfectly here if he runs, with lots of early speed to be entered.

Second-place Swale finisher Zenden was possible for the Gotham, but he will likely run in Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby (G2) instead. Third-place Swale runner Topper T is possible for trainer Bill Mott, and while the fourth-place finisher High Crime was under consideration for the Gotham, he is no longer.

Call Paul winning the Swale over a few rivals he may meet in the Gotham (Photo: Coglianese Photos/Leslie Martin)

The local prep for the Gotham, the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes, is another 7-furlong sprint that will produce Gotham runners. Winner Haikal has impressed at Aqueduct for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin and owner Shadwell Stables. Haikal is a half-brother to the G1-winning sprinter Takaful, who ran for the same connections. After finishing third in the Remsen Stakes (G2), Takaful tried the Derby trail but was unable to stretch out to 1 1/16 miles in that year’s Fountain of Youth. Maybe things would’ve been different for Takaful if the Gotham was run at a one-turn mile in 2017. His little brother will get a chance to redeem him.

Another intriguing Gotham probable out of the Winkfield is the Steve Asmussen-trained Tikhvin Flew. After breaking his maiden on debut going 7 furlongs on January 4 at Aqueduct, Tikhvin Flew next finished a game third in the Winkfield. Owner Jeff Bloom had high hopes for the son of Street Sense after his maiden win, so he’ll need to show that promise and move forward to compete at this level.

It’s quickly becoming evident – everyone is flocking to get Derby points at a mile!

Haikal winning the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes over Joevia, who is also possible for the Gotham (Photo: NYRA)

The Gotham not only has stretch-out candidates, it has also attracted the interest of two horses looking to cut back that disappointed in their 2019 debuts. The Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity Stakes (G1) winner Knicks Go was flat in his return at 1 1/16 miles in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3). Trainer Ben Colebrook recently said, “Obviously, cutting back to the mile for the Gotham could certainly work in his favor, but the race is also looking like it will come up real salty, so we’ll weigh all of our options.” For a horse who also ran second behind Game Winner in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, it’s put up or shut up time for Knicks Go after finishing fifth in the Sam F. Davis and 11th in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) in his last two races. After hearing the news about the California shippers, however, Knicks Go’s chances of running here are now 50/50 at best, as reported by Daily Racing Form.

The other cut-back candidate for the Gotham is trainer Todd Pletcher’s Federal Case, who made a premature move at the top of the far turn into the teeth of a stiff pace in the Holy Bull Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park. Federal Case was spinning his wheels into the stretch and finished a disappointing seventh. The son of Gemologist was quick to return to the work tab with three breezes since the Holy Bull, but he needs to prove that he can excel at this class level.

Class is not a question for the Hopeful Stakes (G1) winner Mind Control, who’s been sitting around New York all winter just waiting for this race. With all of the shippers and stretch-out candidates coming into the Gotham, it took me this long to talk about the likely second betting favorite (behind Instagrand). Mind Control toyed with the Jerome Stakes field at Aqueduct, exuding his class in a gate-to-wire triumph on the first day of 2019. He’ll run the same one-turn, 1-mile configuration here, but he has run his best when on the front-end of the pace, so he will need a good draw and forward placement, both of which will be more difficult here. After the Jerome, trainer Greg Sacco had originally pointed Mind Control to the Withers Stakes (G3), which was contested at a 1 1/8-mile distance in February, but he skipped that in favor of this shorter race. The key for Sacco will be to get Mind Control to the Wood Memorial Stakes (G2) on April 6, where the purse would be boosted to $1 million if a G1 winner runs.

Mind Control winning the Jerome at Aqueduct (Photo: NYRA / Joe Labozzetta)

There are even more horses potentially running in the Gotham, so for a full list of probables and possibles, check out the Derby Trail Tracker, which is updated daily with info on where every horse will run next on the Derby Trail.

Sprinting to Derby Dreams

The field for this year’s Gotham has it all! Stretch-outs, cut-backs, and shippers from around the country, including possibly two G1 winners and two G2 winners. It has a mix of the top trainers in the country in Hall of Famers Baffert, Hollendorfer, and Asmussen, along with other top conditioners like Pletcher and McLaughlin. Hall of Fame jockeys Javier Castellano and John Velazquez will ship in to ride the top two choices (Instagrand and Mind Control, respectively). Who would’ve thought that a New York race in the middle of winter could get so hot right now?

With the confluence of these different aspects converging on Aqueduct each March, the Gotham will be one of the most unique and interesting betting races every year. If this was the NCAA Tournament, the Gotham would be akin to the play-in game for sprinters.

The only thing that can throw a wrench in this race is the weather. In the extended forecast, there’s a 40% chance of snow Friday night with a high of 38 degrees on Saturday, so we’ll see who can excel on a possibly wet, cold track.

With all of these factors, is it really so bad that the Gotham is giving 85 points to the Derby after all? Will one horse from this race really screw up the Derby pace that much?

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In two hottest-paced Derbies of the points era, need-the-lead blazers Danzing Candy (2016) and Promises Fulfilled (2018) qualified for the Derby out of two-turn, 1 1/16-mile preps, so it’s not like the Derby points system is bullet-proof and totally eliminates sprinter-types.

In the first year of the one-turn, 1-mile Gotham in the Derby points era, Enticed won on the cut-back after a lackluster performance in the Holy Bull, much like Federal Case and Knicks Go will try to do this year. Enticed wasn’t a speedball sprinter and showed his ability to go long with a follow-up second in the 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial. Second-place finisher Old Time Revival grabbed 20 points in last year’s Gotham, but he didn’t get enough points overall to make the Derby gate, and he’s been a mostly unsuccessful sprinter ever since.

Even though Churchill Downs didn’t originally intend to give this many points to a one-turn, 1-mile race, in the end, the change in the Gotham distance has made it an exciting race this year, and it shouldn’t have significant negative implications to the Derby. Yes, it only takes one speedball to heat up the Derby pace, but it’s just as likely that a speedball could get loose in a 1 1/16-mile race as they could in the Gotham to qualify for The Run for the Roses.

With past winners like Hall of Famers Dr. Fager, Easy Goer (who owns the stakes record at 1 mile), and Triple Crown winner Secretariat, the Gotham is a historic race that’s been run since 1953 and it isn’t going anywhere as a major Derby prep in this new era, even if it’s a mile race.

For updates on the Gotham field and all of the Kentucky Derby preps, please follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim. I’ll also be writing a full pace analysis of the Gotham in the Racing Dudes’ Big Cap Wagering Guide that comes out this week, along with my exotic ticket plays for the Gotham and the Tampa Bay Derby, so look for that coming out soon!