A few days out from the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I), it's interesting to ponder what might have been if the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) field was still based on earnings rather than points earned in specific races.
In years past, there was considerable buzz and excitement surrounding fillies that were being considered for both races. But this year, since the only opportunity for fillies to earn points toward the Run for the Roses was to run against males in the major prep races, the Derby wasn't even a thought for most owners.
"I don't think anybody with a filly—whether it be Rachel Alexandra or others that have run against colts in the past—would have started out (the Triple Crown season) looking at races like the Florida Derby (gr. I) or Santa Anita Derby (gr. I)," said Kentucky bloodstock agent John Moynihan, who advised Barbara Banke to purchase the Wild Rush mare Dream Rush while carrying this year's Kentucky Oaks (gr. I)-bound Dreaming of Julia.
"With the timing of (the Derby), you don't really consider it until the last minute," Moynihan said. "You want to see how the cards fall...there are so many different scenarios that come into play. You've got to look at the quality of the colts out there and how well they're doing and also the quality of the Oaks."
After Dreaming of Julia's scintillating 21 3/4-length score in the March 30 Gulfstream Park Oaks (gr. II), which she ran nearly two seconds faster than the boys later on the card in the Florida Derby, the daughter of A.P. Indy is now considered to be one of the fiercest contenders in the Kentucky Oaks field.
But would Moynihan and Banke be dreaming of roses rather than lilies with Dreaming of Julia had the earnings system still been in tact?
"The irony is, (the Derby) would have been a topic of discussion with Julia running the race she did in the Gulfstream Oaks," Moynihan said. "So she exposed the flaw in the (points) system.
"Churchill's response would be, 'Well, if they really wanted to (run in the Derby), they should have pointed her to races like the Holy Bull (gr. III) and Florida Derby.' But I don't think that's a feasible statement," Moynihan continued. "We've been in this position before with Rachel Alexandra in the Haskell, Preakness, and Woodward (all gr. I). You don't really consider those races unless you're sitting right on top of them and your horse is doing great."
Moynihan noted how the back-and-forth dialogue in years past between fans who are for or against running certain fillies in the Derby has generated excitement for the event. That has been taken away by the new points system.
"Maybe (Churchill) is trying to make the Oaks a marquee event like the Derby, but if that's the case, they need to add a few more million dollars to it," he said.
Mike Repole, owner of another capable Oaks contender, undefeated Unlimited Budget, said the Kentucky Derby might have been a consideration for his filly had Overanalyze not won the Arkansas Derby (gr. I). The son of Dixie Union currently ranks fifth on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leader board.
"Overanalyze winning the Arkansas Derby probably made that thought (running Unlimited Budget in the Kentucky Derby) not come into my head as much," Repole said. "But the second thing is the way the points system is set up; it doesn't even provide an option (for fillies).
"You never give fillies a real chance unless you run them against colts before the Derby and I don't know how many owners would want to do that."
He added that numbers-wise, Dreaming of Julia, Unlimited Budget, and another leading Oaks contender, Beholder, have run better speed numbers than many of the Kentucky Derby colts this year. "If you put the top five fillies in (the Derby) against the five favorites in the Derby, you'd probably have five fillies that would be under 20-1 odds," he said.
In spite of the twinge of emotion some owners may feel this year for their fillies' missed chances to contend in the Kentucky Derby, most will agree the Kentucky Oaks is shaping up to be one of the best fields in recent history. The absence of a filly in the Derby just means more anticipation for a stellar competition on the First Friday in May.
"To me, this is the toughest Oaks field I've ever seen as far as the depth," Moynihan said.
"We're happy to be in the race. It's the race we've always pointed to and the race (trainer) Todd Pletcher has prepared Dreaming of Julia for. It's one thing to have the conversation about (running in the Derby), but the Oaks is a tall glass of water. It's really a difficult task and we're not underestimating that by any stretch."