There's a lot of uncertainty about the effect of new rules determining which horses will get into the Kentucky Derby.
No one is more impacted than trainer Todd Pletcher, who, by his own admission, has as many as six or seven 3-year-olds hoping to make it to the Derby field, which is limited to no more than 20 starters.
The old rules set the field by so-called graded stakes earnings -- the amount of cash a horse had earned in races officially graded I, II or III. The earnings could come at any time in the horse's career and some American race tracks played to those circumstances by offering $1 million purses for graded races for 2-year-olds. Winning one of those races -- or the $1 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile -- ensured a 2-year-old could get into the following year's Kentucky Derby simply by staying healthy enough to walk into the starting gate.
This year, Churchill Downs has instituted a points system that rewards horses who run well in the major 3-year-old Derby prep races. Winning those 2-year-old races becomes almost irrelevant in the Derby selection process, with each offering only 10 points to the winner.
Starting this weekend with the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park in Florida and the Risen Star at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, the top Derby preps will be worth 50 points to the winner, 20 for second, 10 for third and 5 for the fourth-place finisher. There are eight of those races, followed by seven Derby "semifinals" that will be worth 100-40-20-10 points.
No one knows how many points it will take to get into the Derby. The "semifinals" certainly will be won by seven different horses but at least some of them are likely to have won an earlier race. So, it has been speculated horses at the bottom of the Kentucky Derby field could have as few as 20 points.
Pletcher said this week he does not think the new system has affected planning too much for his herd.
"I don't know that their prep schedules have changed much," he said. "What's so critical is that they run well and I think in their cases, they're only going to have two Triple Crown prep races so obviously we need them to perform well in those races."
But, he added, it's less likely that a trainer will limit the exposure of a good horse who might in the past already have earned a Derby spot. And that, he said, could mean more good horses will be competing in the remaining races.
"I think we probably are seeing a little bit this weekend where you see some horses that perhaps would've maybe run in another one-turn race ... are going ahead and jumping out into the Fountain of Youth or the Risen Star," he said. "And so we're possibly seeing a change in the pace scenarios in some of these races where beforehand they might have rolled the dice and with the graded earnings been able to get into the Kentucky Derby without really having any two-turn experience."
H. Graham Motion, who opted to run Cerro in Saturday's Fountain of Youth because of the available points, concurred the new system impacts scheduling.
"You also have to bear in mind, when you start thinking about Derby points and all that, you don't want to put your eggs in one basket and wait for the one race in Kentucky," Motion told the Louisville Courier-Journal.
For the record, Shanghai Bobby and Goldencents lead the current point standings with 24 points each.
Pletcher said he thinks the racing surface at Churchill Downs will have more impact on the outcome of the Derby than any change in the rules for getting to Louisville.
"To me, the one thing that I think goes overlooked a lot is this huge, huge influence on the outcome of the Kentucky Derby is the racing surface at Churchill ... Sometimes it doesn't matter how good you are or how well-prepared you are or how many points you have," Pletcher said. "If you show up and the Churchill surface is in one of its quirky states, there's a lot of horses that just will not handle that surface and you've got to get lucky in that regard."
He noted the situation is further complicated by the retirement last year of longtime Churchill Downs track superintendent Butch Lehr and not knowing how his successor's maintenance policies will affect the racing surface.