Last week it was announced that Churchill Downs and Great Britain's Kempton Park created a new 3-year-old race that will provide the winner a berth in the 2009 Kentucky Derby. The race, named the Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes, not only guarantees the winner a spot in the starting gate next May, but will earn the connections a $100,000 bonus if the horse does in fact go to post. It is a groundbreaking move by Churchill Downs in an attempt to create more of an international presence in the Derby.
Following in the footsteps of the Breeders' Cup, who a couple of years ago introduced the "Win and You're In" series, Churchill Downs is clearly attempting to create more international excitement in their event. It is also an attempt to create more marketing opportunities overseas. With no international starters in the Derby for the past six years and only one winner in the race's history (Canonero II in 1971), the time has apparently come for America's premier Thoroughbred event to become more global.
My initial reaction when I heard the news was positive. I am always excited when American horses face Europeans in the Breeders' Cup and other stakes events throughout the season, and this move will create that same kind of feel. It should also make the handicapping element that much more challenging and fun. In a period of rapidly declining popularity in our industry, the timing of this move makes a lot of sense.
Before making up my mind in finality, however, I wanted to clear up a few questions. Churchill Downs Inc. senior vice president Kevin Flanery answered them for me.
JS: Is this something that has been in the works for a while?
KF: The idea for an international presence has been talked about for several years. We haven't had a European starter for a number of years. Our hope is that it will create more excitement in the Kentucky Derby around the world. It seems like a natural fit.
JS: Will there be more races created like this in the future, perhaps in other countries?
KF: We'll see how this goes. We'll learn from it and reevaluate it next year. We're going to talk to people in the U.S. and other counties to see if it was successful. Did it work? How much excitement did it create? We'll answer those questions before we make any other decisions.
JS: The only problem I can foresee is that some owners and trainers over here could get upset if they are knocked out of the Derby by this new race. There is always a lot of jockeying for that 20th and final position. Now there are only 19 spots available over here. Do you think this will be an issue?
KF: Whenever you have an exciting event people want to participate. Whether it's the 15th Breeders' Cup horse or the 21st Kentucky Derby horse left out, someone is going to be disappointed. We think people will understand that were trying to create more excitement to the Derby. Everything we've heard so far has been positive.
JS: Did you get this idea from the Breeders' Cup Challenge "Win and You're In" series?
KF: There is a lot of synergy between the Breeders' Cup and the Kentucky Derby. People want to follow the Derby winner all the way to the Breeders' Cup. We're trying to create a way where the two events can feed off each other.
JS: Will there be any kind of change to the current format in which the other 19 Derby starters qualify by graded earnings?
KF: No. The existing system is still in place. We haven't discussed changing that.
It will be interesting to see how well this change is received over here and if there are any additional races added in the future. Potentially, this could be just the first of several newly-created international races. For now, I'm curious to see what everyone else thinks about this. I think it's a good thing.
** For the record, bookmakers in England have installed the European starter at early odds of 20-1 to win the Kentucky Derby. It's never too early to start thinking about the wagering angles.