By Richard Rosenblatt
In less than an hour, the Kentucky Derby (G2) had its first two points qualifiers, and the Preakness (G1) awarded an automatic berth to a trainer who now has a chance to win the second leg of the Triple Crown for a record eighth time.
The road to the Derby this President’s Weekend began late Saturday afternoon with the Risen Star Stakes (G2) at the Fair Grounds, a race so popular it was split into two divisions with Derby points of 50-20-10-5 awarded to each of the first four finishers.
Mr. Monomoy took the lead from the outset and wired the field to win the first division of the 1 1/8-mile race, and Modernist cruised to victory in the second division.
With their victories, the 3-year-olds soared to the top of the Derby leaderboard with 52 points and 50 points, respectively. Mr. Monomoy, trained by Brad Cox, earned two points for a third-place finish in the Lecomte (G3) last month.
Since the points system began in 2012, any horse with at least 40 points has made the Derby field limited to 20 starters.
In between Risen Stars — each division had a purse of $400,000 — and out at Golden Gate Fields in California, Azul Coast won the $100,000 El Camino Real Derby for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. While the race awards Derby points of 10-4-2-1 for the first four finishers (Azul Coast now has 14), the victory gave Baffert at least one chance to break the Preakness win record he shares with R. Wyndham Walden, who had his seven winners from 1875-1888.
Already, Baffert has several other Derby contenders, including Authentic, Eight Rings, Nadal and Thousand Words.
When Azul Coast co-owner Mike Pegram was asked what’s next, he replied, “a trip to the beer stand.”
In the first division of the Risen Star, jockey Florent Geroux guided Mr. Monomoy to the lead, while Lecomte winner and 3-1 co-favorite Enforceable started in the back of the pack of 11. Mr. Monomoy ($17 for a $2 win) was never headed and won by 2 ½ lengths with Enforceable closing well for second.
“I wanted to be close,’’ said Cox. “I felt like he has to be close. I don’t know if he had to be on the lead, but a I think we drew better today than last time (post No. 9; last time it was post No. 2). As long as he continues to do better, we’ll hope we can take a shot at the Derby.”
In the second division, 12-1 long shot Modernist ($27.60), with Junior Alvarado aboard, remained just off the pace set by Ny Traffic, and when the field turned for home, the 3-year-old colt trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott took charge and beat Major Fed by a length in the 11-horse field. Anneau d’Or, runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), was ninth as the even-money favorite.
Mott won his first Derby last year when Country House (retired on Friday) was elevated to first from second after first-place finisher Maximum Security was disqualified for interference.
Baffert may have another Derby contender to go with a slew of others after Azul Coast ($4.60) easily topped an 11-horse field in the El Camino Real Derby run over a synthetic track (Tapeta). The winner was well placed in fourth under Rafael Bejarano, rallied three wide and took over in mid-stretch to win by 1 ¼ lengths over American Farmer.
The Derby trail picks up again Monday, when a field of nine heads to the post for the $750,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn. The Derby qualifying points are 10-4-2-1 for the first four finishers. Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen has three entries, led by Smarty Jones winner Gold Street. He’ll also saddle Silver Prospector and Shoplifted.