Imperia seemingly had everything going for him Saturday.
Regal breeding, the long Fair Grounds home stretch that favors closers and even Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith brought in from California to ride the Florida-based colt in the Grade II Risen Star Stakes.
Small wonder he went off as the 2-3 favorite.
A victory in Imperia’s first start as 3-year-old would have been worth 50 points in the Kentucky Derby qualifying race, more than enough to insure him of a berth in the Run for the Roses, regardless of how he did in any Derby prep races.
But a funny thing happened, or a not so funny thing if you’re Imperia’s connections.
Imperia could never threaten despite Smith’s best efforts and finished fifth in the field of nine. That means Imperia will now have to have a high finish in one of the final prep races – perhaps to March 28 Louisiana Derby – to advance, although Smith said his mount did not handle the surface well.
Imperia wasn’t alone in not living up to expectations.
Steve Asmussen was another disappointed trainer on Saturday.
His Tiznow R J was third in last month’s Lecomte, but that was worth only two points.
Saturday, Tiznow R J was a poor-finishing seventh.
“This was very disappointing,” said Asmussen, the 14-time Fair Grounds training champion. “We thought we had things going well for us.
“When you can get points in a race like today’s, you’re in good shape going forward. Now it’s certainly a different situation.”
The points setup debuted three in 2013. To make the field of 20, somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 points is needed.
That means you can advance without winning a Derby prep, but it’s going to take more than one strong finish, and then only in those races designated as official preps.
“It’s a pretty unforgiving system,” Mike Maker, trainer of Risen Star winner International Star. “You can the best horse in the world. But if he doesn’t get done on that day, he doesn’t get the points.”
At least Imperia had his chance
Breeders Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red, trained and partially owned by Louisianian Keith Desormeaux was to have shipped in from Santa Anita for the race, but instead suffered a abscess in his right foot in the in the San Vicente Stakes on Feb. 1 and had to withdraw.
Texas Red is now in an all-or-nothing mode at the Santa Anita Derby, although he did earn 12 points for his Breeders Cup victory.
Another Risen Star entry, Todd Pletcher-trained JS Bach, was scratched on Wednesday after developing a temperature.
His next race is uncertain.
And in some cases, even qualifying isn’t enough.
War Story finished second to International Star on Saturday, just as he did in the Lecomte. With 24 points War Story probably has enough to qualify.
But his trainer, Tom Amoss, isn’t sure.
“We’ve got to talk to the owners,” said Amoss, who would have gotten the victory if jockey Kent Desormeaux’s foul claim had been upheld. “I’m now thinking past his next race right now.
“You might qualify, but you’ve got to feel like you belong. I don’t feel like War Story belongs yet.”
And even if you do look like you belong, sometimes it turns out that you didn’t.
International Star is the current point’s leader with 71.
Last year, another Maker-trained entry, Vicar’s in Trouble was second only to California Chrome with 120 points, 100 of them earned by wining the Louisiana Derby.
On Kentucky Derby day California Chrome won,
Vicar’s in Trouble was last.
“That’s racing,” Maker said. “You just never know.”