On a day where there will be racing at Aqueduct, Hollywood Park and Churchill Downs, little Delta Downs in little Vinton, La., will be the most important track operating in North America Saturday. They've attracted some good young horses with tons of potential and trainers like Bob Baffert, Tony Dutrow and Kelly Breen and jockeys like Calvin Borel, Javier Castellano and Robby Albarado. Guarantee someone a spot in the Kentucky Derby and that's what you get.
On the surface, the big prize is the $1 million they'll be giving away in the 8th running of the Delta Downs Jackpot, a Grade 3 event. There's nothing wrong with winning a race where the top prize is $600,000, but it's not exactly the $600,000 itself. It's where the $600,000 gets you.
With the way things are set up, so many people with nice 3-year-olds, come March and April, are worried about having enough earnings. The next thing you do is run in races just to get your earnings up.
”-- Trainer Mark Casse
Anyone winning the race will receive one of the most coveted prizes in racing, a spot in the Kentucky Derby. Even a second-place finish, which is worth $200,000, might get you in the race.
"It's the second richest 2-year-old race in America (behind the Breeders' Cup Juvenile)," noted Kelly Breen, the trainer of Sweet Ducky. "It's a 'Win and You're In' race for the Kentucky Derby. Make $600,000 and you're in. A lot of people are going to be scrambling around trying to figure out how they're going to get the earnings to get in. Hopefully, not us."
The Kentucky Derby field is limited to the top 20 horses based on their earnings in graded stakes. Prior to 2006, the race was not graded. With that being the case, no matter what kind of money Delta management poured into the race it was going to have a hard time attracting top horses. Getting graded status changed everything.
"(Getting enough earnings for the Derby) is a big deal," said Mark Casse, who trains morning-line favorite Blue Laser. "With the way things are set up, so many people with nice 3-year-olds, come March and April, are worried about having enough earnings. The next thing you do is run in races just to get your earnings up. If our horse wins, we can go home, give him a break and bring him to the Derby the way we want to and not have to worry about the earnings again."
Still, it seemed to take trainers and owners a little while to catch on. The fields in the first two runnings after the race was graded weren't that strong and the winners were forgettable horses named Birdbirdistheword, Z Humor and Turf War, who finished in a dead-heat for the win in 2007. But with getting into the Derby field becoming harder all the time, a lot of top trainers started to figure out that the Delta Jackpot made a lot of sense. Big Drama, who won this year's Breeders' Cup Sprint and is a likely Eclipse Award winner, won the 2008 running. Rule, trained by Todd Pletcher, won last year and seemed well on his way to being a major Derby contender before being sidelined following a third-place finish in the Florida Derby.
Delta management took a chance this year when moving the race up two weeks on the calendar. That all but guaranteed they wouldn't get any horses from the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but it opened up a new option for trainers and owners who wanted a big payday and a race that wasn't as tough as the Juvenile.
"I could have been 30-1 for $2 million (in the Breeders' Cup) or the morning-line favorite for $1 million," Casse said. "That's another reason this race is so attractive to us."
Owned by WinStar Farm, also the owners of Rule, Blue Laser has won two straight in Canada, including the Grade 3 Grey Stakes. But he's far from a lock. Bug Juice is one of the fastest 2-year-olds in the country, but still must prove he can go beyond six furlongs. Rush Now is a developing colt from the Tony Dutrow barn and is coming off an impressive stakes win at Delaware Park. Sweet Ducky is an improving colt coming off a pair of stakes wins at Monmouth. Classic Legacy should improve now that he's joined the Baffert barn.
The Delta card also includes the $500,000 Delta Princess for 2-year-old fillies. The New York-based Promise Me a Cat looks like the one to beat there.
Delta Jackpot Analysis
Classic Legacy turned in a very strange performance in the Grey Stakes at Woodbine. He blasted by the leaders on the turn in effortless fashion only to stop to a walk inside the sixteenth-pole and blow the race. It might have been a case of him pulling himself up, which could be solved here with blinkers, or a case of getting a bad ride from an inexperienced jockey who is still an apprentice. Now Joe Talamo takes over for new trainer Bob Baffert. All signs point to an improved effort. Rush Now is a developing colt for top trainer Tony Dutrow who seems to be getting better with every start. Sweet Ducky steps up in class after winning a couple of non-graded stakes at Monmouth. He can handle the distance, has some class and comes from a smart barn.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at email@example.com.