Run for Dough - By Evan Hammonds

(Originally published in the May 1, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)    

There appears to be a grassroots movement underway this spring to change the graded stakes earnings benchmark for entry into the Kentucky Derby (gr. I).

Making the field of 20 starters for America’s most important race has been based on earnings in graded stakes since 1986 and it’s worked well. It’s a pretty simple concept that helps separate the contenders from the

Owners and trainers know, well in advance, that they have to compete—and be fairly successful—at the top level to have the privilege of forking over $25,000 for an entry fee and the $25,000 to start.

This year the watermark for making the field appears to be about $250,000 in graded earnings, an all-time high. Last year, for example, the cutoff was around $55,000 in graded earnings. In the three years before that, it took a low six-figure amount to get in. It’s the high-dollar mark of this year’s class that has caused some handwringing.

Our own Lenny Shulman and Steve Haskin, on the show “And They’re Off” noted that as of last week the second-place finishers in the Wood Memorial (gr. I), Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), Florida Derby (gr. I), and Illinois Derby (gr. II) didn’t have sufficient graded earnings to make the gate. They suggested a tiered point system should be put in place that would weight grade I races more than grade IIs and grade IIs more than grade IIIs.

Others have suggested similar ideas, and these ideas are based on good arguments. However, they seem a bit protectionist.

Should a grade I be worth more than a grade II or grade III? They aren’t in the most important vein: monetary value. There is no limit on the top-end value; however, there is a floor for graded races as set out by the American Graded Stakes Committee. Grade Is have to have a minimum purse of $250,000; grade IIs $150,000; and grade IIIs $100,000.

Sure, races like the Wood, Santa Anita Derby, and Florida Derby have a certain history about them as being traditional Derby preps. Another adage in the sport’s history is even older: The best horses run for the best purses.

As the industry evolves, purses are on the rise in states such as Louisiana, Arkansas, and New Mexico where they have been supplemented with gaming revenue. Stakes purses have become stagnant, if not cut, in New York and California.

There were 32 graded stakes for 3-year-old males in 2010 before the Derby. If certain grade III races offer astronomically more than some grade Is, then go run in them.

WinStar Farm is one outfit that has figured this out. In all likelihood it will have four runners in the Derby, a record for one owner. Three of its four runners earned purses enhanced by gaming: Slots-enriched purses at Delta Downs in Louisiana buoyed the earnings of Rule; Endorsement won the $800,000 Sunland Derby (gr. III) at Sunland Park in New Mexico; and Super Saver earned $200,000 running second in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) at Oaklawn Park, which has Instant Racing gaming machines.

The Sunland Derby was worth $400,000 to the winner. The grade III Boyd’s Gaming Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs in December had a winner’s share of $450,000—the same as the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), the Wood, and the Santa Anita, Florida, and Louisiana derbys. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

In order for a race to become graded, or move up to a grade II or even a grade I down the road, the races consistently need to lure stakes runners. Offer more money, attract better horses, improve your lot.

A way for horsemen to improve their lot is to run more often. Another Derby trend this year is to limit the number of starts the 3-year-olds make early in the year. As many as eight of the top Derby contenders will have had only two starts under them prior to May 1.

Somewhere Ben and Jimmy Jones are laughing out loud.

Get checked in a race and come home fourth instead of second? That could cost you $100,000 in graded earnings. Get beat in a nose in a grade I? That could be a $300,000 photo finish. With only two starts, that doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room.

Evan Hammonds is digital media editor for The Blood-Horse.

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