One of the fun things about the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments is seeing the accomplished team from a lesser known conference take on a team from one of the more established leagues.
By bumping the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) on the synthetic surface at Turfway Park to a major points race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby in recent years, Churchill Downs has provided a bit of a racing version of this type of match-up. The March 25 test on the Tapeta Footings surface there offers points to the top five finishers (100-40-30-20-10) and ensures the winner a spot in the Derby field, if the connections choose that path.
As horses that already have shown talent on the dirt battle for points at tracks such as Aqueduct, Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn Park, and Santa Anita Park, the Jeff Ruby provides some other talented horses out there with a path to the Kentucky Derby (G1). These are horses that have shown talent on synthetic and turf surfaces, as well as horses wintering in Kentucky at the fast-improving Turfway meet.
As I have penned in this column before, I like the idea that horses that have shown an affinity for synthetic surfaces, or turf, have a chance to garner Derby qualifying points before a final decision on starting on dirt is made. If connections want to take the approach of keeping their young horse on turf or synthetic during the prep season—as opposed to trying dirt in a prep race in order to secure points—they have that option.
This would be the approach of the connections of 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom, who made his first dirt start in the Derby. The son of 2005 champion turf horse Leroidesanimaux finished first or second in his first three starts before making his stakes debut in the Spiral Stakes (former name of the Jeff Ruby), where he rallied from seventh and picked up enough Derby points to make the classic.
The connections then closely observed a workout on the dirt at Churchill Downs one week before the Derby. Liking what they saw, they would enter the 1 1/4-mile classic, where Animal Kingdom and jockey John Velazquez would post a clear victory after rallying from 12th.
The connections of two runners in the March 25 Jeff Ruby would face a similar decision should they win Saturday. Scoobie Quando has finished first or second in all three of his starts—all at Turfway—including a runner-up finish in the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes March 4. The three career starts for Bluebirds Over have been on synthetic or turf surfaces, including a victory in last year's Grey Stakes (G3) on the Tapeta Footings surface at Woodbine.
Two of the more prominent runners in this year's Jeff Ruby field started their careers on dirt before shifting to turf. Major Dude earned a maiden win on debut at five furlongs last summer at Monmouth Park, but has made his four most recent starts on turf—capturing a pair of graded stakes during that stretch. Trained by Todd Pletcher, Major Dude is the 5-2 morning-line favorite in Saturday's expected field of 12.
Congruent also earned his maiden victory on dirt—and even earned a stakes victory on the main track at Laurel Park—before shifting to three starts on turf at Gulfstream. He then was shipped to Turfway where the son of Tapit captured the Battaglia in impressive fashion, drawing off by 3 1/2 lengths late under last year's Derby-winning jockey Sonny Leon.
Beyond providing opportunity for qualifying points for horses that have shown affinity for turf or synthetic surfaces, the Jeff Ruby also provides a path to the Derby for horses based at Turfway. As purses have skyrocketed at the Northern Kentucky track, this option has become important for a meet that figures to grow in stature in the years ahead.
In fact, this path already has come to fruition. Last year while wintering at Turfway, Rich Strike secured just enough points to make it onto the Derby also-eligible list behind a fourth in the Battaglia and a third in the Jeff Ruby. When a spot in the Derby field opened up, he took advantage in shocking fashion—scoring an 80-1 upset.