At a time when the National Football League gave the nation a weekend filled with talk of a second coming of the Ice Bowl, Thoroughbred racing was nice enough to conjure up visions of spring time.
The 2014 portion of the Road to the Kentucky Derby kicked off with Saturdays $200,000 Jerome Stakes on a brutally cold January day at Aqueduct that may have supplied the connection of one fortunate horse with a reason to daydream about a warmer day in May.
While some might scoff at the notion of mentioning a mundane January stakes at Aqueduct in the same paragraph as the glorious Kentucky Derby, Year 1 of a new points system for determining berths in the Run for the Roses illustrated that nothing should be taken for granted.
Last years establishment of the Road to the Kentucky Derby point system -- a series of more than 30 races that determines the 20 starters in the Run for the Roses -- created some controversy by installing a structure that heavily favored the last round of preps over the 2-year-old classics and early winter stakes. As it turned out, after fears that the reigning 2-year-old champ and other graded stakes winners would be excluded in favor of longshot winners in races like the Wood Memorial and Arkansas Derby, the Kentucky Derby was as exclusive as the drive-in window at McDonalds.
Looking back, the battle for the final spot in what would be a field of 19 came down to Giant Finish and Fear the Kitten. Giant Finish won out with 10 points, four more than the Fear the Kitten.
And if youre wondering what grand effort earned Giant Finish those 10 points, it was a third place in the Grade 3 Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park.
On Saturday, Noble Moon also earned 10 points for winning the Jerome, which at this moment in time in January seems inconsequential -- especially with an upcoming schedule that will feature seven races awarding 100-40-20-10 points to the top four finishers and eight handing out 50-20-10-5. Yet the history of the Road to the Kentucky Derby series, as minute as it may be, says otherwise.
With the inevitable attrition of Derby candidates due to injury or declining form, come spring time a victory in the Jerome just might come in handy for horsemen eager to spend the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.
There was a huge divide between the point leaders and bottom feeders last year, as Florida Derby winner (and Kentucky Derby winner) Orb and Wood Memorial victor Verrazano topped the scale with 150 points and Giant Finish slipped in with 10 points.
Yet the horses who secured spots just ahead of Giant Finish were hardly the most accomplished segment of the 3-year-old crop. Golden Soul -- who would finish second at 34-1 odds -- was the next-to-last qualifier with all of 14 points. All in all, seven of the 19 Derby starters had 42 or less points.
Realistically, a jump like the one from the Jerome to the Kentucky Derby might be beyond the scope of a Michael Jordan in his prime. Yet what should stand out after last years scramble for starting spots is that the development inherent in graduating from a minor stakes winner to a Triple Crown candidate is more important than accumulating points.
This past fall, Shug McGaughey, the trainer of 2013 Derby winner Orb, spoke about the Triple Crown after winning the Grade 2 Remsen with his talented 2-year-old colt Honor Code.
The victory in the Remsen supplied Honor Code with 10 points and gave the Champagne runner-up a total of 14 points. But what mattered most to McGaughey involved his horses growth from the fall to the spring. He said Orb had developed at an amazing rate early in his 3-year-old campaign and pointed out that even though Honor Code was more advanced than Orb, Honor Code still had some improvement ahead of him if he wanted to duplicate his stablemates accomplishments.
Getting to Louisville? Well, with 14 points in the bank, Honor Code just might have the points to run.
So might Noble Moon.
It may sound silly, but on a frigid weekend even a wild notion about the Kentucky Derby is enough to warm the heart.