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How the Sunland Derby Became a Key Kentucky Derby Prep

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Short answer: It's all about the Benjamins.

For a race that didn't even exist ten years ago, the Grade 3 Sunland Derby has quickly become an important step on the road to the Kentucky Derby.  And while the race itself doesn't hold the prestige or the history of the other major Derby preps like the Wood Memorial, the Santa Anita Derby, and the Blue Grass, the Sunland Derby's purse of $800,000 and its new graded status ensures that it could have a major impact on which horses make the starting gate in Kentucky.

Conveyance, the morning line favorite for this year's Sunland, and the "big name" horse of the field, currently sits around 16th on the current graded earnings list (depending on which horses you include in that list).  When you take out Vale of York (IRE) and Blind Luck, and probably one or two more horses that won't be in the Derby (D'Funnybone), it appears that Conveyance has amassed enough earnings to guarantee a spot in the starting gate should more than twenty horses seek to enter.  If he were to finish just 3rd or 2nd in the Sunland, Conveyance would have over $300,000 in graded earnings, an amount that seems sufficient based on what we've seen in the past.

The key question with the Sunland Derby, however, is this: what happens if Conveyance doesn't win? 

First, if any horse other than Conveyance wins they are practically assured of having enough earnings to enter the Derby.  The winner of the Sunland will pocket over $400,000, and there won't be twenty other three-year-olds with more than $400k in grade earnings.  Currently, there are seven horses with more than that amount in graded earnings and three of those are unlikely to run (Vale of York, Blind Luck, and D'Funnybone).

Second, a non-Conveyance winner of the Sunland will likely bump a fringe horse out of the current Top 20...and by "fringe", I mean fringe in terms of earnings not in terms of talent.  Look at the horses that sit between 20 and 30 on the current graded earnings list (chart is below). Most of these colts have to accumulate more earnings to feel secure about making the Derby and are in serious danger of other horses leapfrogging them.  Horses like Caracortado, Super Saver, Eskendereya, Sidney's Candy, Odysseus...some of the bigger names on this year's Derby trail are nowhere near a completely secure position.

 

Rank

Horse

GrStk Earnings

20

Sidney's Candy

$180,000

 

Odysseus

180,000

22

Backtalk

172,000

23

Super Saver

163,832

24

Pleasant Prince

162,500

25

Eskendereya

150,000

26

Caracortado

108,000

27

Paddy O'Prado

100,950

28

Schoolyard Dreams

100,000

 

Aspire

100,000

30

Alphie's Bet

90,000

 

Connemara

90,000


Looking at the rest of the Sunland field, Tempted to Tapit (runner-up in the Risen Star) is the only colt other than Conveyance in the top 50 in current graded earnings (38th).  For this colt, the Sunland Derby is essentially his last chance to earn enough money to make Kentucky Derby.  A victory puts him at Churchill Downs.  A second place finish?  Probably a borderline case.  Anything less than that? He's done. 

All the other horses in the field are in a similar position - they make the Derby with a win, they are on the outside looking in with any other scenario.

But the results of the weekend's Sunland won't just impact the chances of the horses in the field, it will also impact many other three year olds hoping to squeeze into that twenty horses field at Chruchill Downs.  Take a look at the chart above again and notice the position of Pleasant Prince, the runner-up in last week's Florida Derby.  After the Florida Derby the connections of the top three horses indicated that their colts would not run in another prep and that all three would train towards the Kentucky Derby.  Pleasant Prince, as it stands right now, would probably just squeak into the Derby field based on his earnings.  However, if Schoolyard Dreams, Eskendereya, or any number of horses below him were to add additional earnings, he'll be on the outside looking in.  Eskendereya is scheduled to run in the Wood Memorial and will likely add to his total before all is said and done.  

Not only are Pleasant Prince's connections are taking a very big risk by not running in an additional prep race, but they also become big fans of Conveyance, and any other horse with more graded earnings than them and with a prep race remaining.  If Nacho Friend or Tempted to Tapit were to win the Sunland, Pleasant Prince's Derby prospects will look a whole lot slimmer.

The key to making it to Kentucky for the Derby isn't the glitz and glamor of the traditional stakes races, it's the green of the graded earnings.  And unless the rules are changed where Grade 1 events carry more weight than Grade 3 events, the Sunland Derby will continue to be an important step for three year olds with Derby aspirations.  

Grade 3 Sunland Derby
1 1/8 miles
3 Year Olds
Purse: $800,000
Post time: 5:45 Mountain

PP

Horse

Jockey

1

Storming Saint

Contreras L

2

Nacho Friend

Bravo J

3

Conveyance

Garcia M

4

McKenna's Justice

Tohill K S

5

Endorsement

Albarado R J

6

Classical Slew

Baze T C

7

Fog Alert

Juarez A J Jr

8

Guiltbyassociation

Enriquez I D

9

Tempted to Tapit

Cohen D