Just two prep races to go but still plenty of Kentucky Derby hopefuls

With a number of permutations on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, Saturday's Arkansas Derby could see the race go down to overall earnings as to who will qualify for the Churchill Downs showpiece.

The field for the 2021 Kentucky Derby is taking shape with just one more 100-40-20-10 point race left on the prep schedule. Only the $1million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, remains to be run, with the winner earning an invitation to Churchill Downs on May 1.

With a logjam of horses currently at 40 points, a second-place finish might not be enough to make it into the field for the first race in the Triple Crown unless the entry comes into the race with some qualifying points. The other race, the Lexington at Keeneland, awards points on a 20-8-4-2 scale, but none of the horses expected to run there on Saturday stand to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, even with a win.

Points leader and Triple Crown favorite Essential Quality

The leader of the points race is unbeaten Essential Quality, the Eclipse Award winner for Horse of the Year as a two-year-old. The Brad Cox-trained colt nosed out Highly Motivated in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on Saturday to head to Churchill Downs as the Triple Crown favorite.

The toughness he exhibited down the stretch should serve him well in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field. Essential Quality leads all Triple Crown contenders with four prep race victories in as many starts, two better than Greatest Honour and Life Is Good, who will miss the Triple Crown series due to injury.

The top 15 horses in the standings have at least 50 points and are securely in the Kentucky Derby field. There are five contenders that have 40 points, all of which have completed their prep races.

Aside from Concert Tour with 50 points, there are an additional five entries in the Arkansas Derby with nine or more points that would jump ahead of the quintet with at least a second-place finish.

Complicating the issue is the likelihood that Gotham Stakes winner Weyburn will skip the Kentucky Derby to focus on his hometown Belmont Stakes, potentially opening up a spot for a horse with fewer than 40 points. Other scratches could move the qualifying total even lower, with any ties broken by total stakes earnings.

Big purse in the Arkansas Derby could be key

This is where the rich $1million purse at the Arkansas Derby could come into play. Second place pays $200,000, and third place earns $100,000, which opens up all sorts of possibilities for top finishers to jump to the top of the earnings list among horses with 40 points.

Hozier, for instance, has 20 points and $200,000 in earnings. A third-place finish would give him a total of 40 points and $300,000 in stakes winnings, vaulting him ahead of Panadol, who has $240,000 in earnings.

Meanwhile, a second-place finish by Last Samurai, the only horse in the Arkansas Derby field without any qualifying points, would easily get him into the Kentucky Derby by virtue of stakes winnings.

The only horse in the field that is already ensured of an invitation is Concert Tour, winner of last month's $1million 50-20-20-5 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn. The Bob Baffert-trained entry will be a prohibitive favorite to win and pass Essential Quality for first place in points.

If he stumbles as Mandaloun did in the Louisiana Derby, then it too will bring a lot of different scenarios into play.

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