Welcome to March, when the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) field begins to take shape thanks to increased prep race qualifying points that essentially ensure winners of races like the Xpressbet.com Fountain of Youth (G2), San Felipe (G2), and Rebel (G2) stakes a spot in the Derby gate.
This year, Turfway Park's top Derby prep, the Spiral Stakes—in 2018 it's the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3)—falls out of the above category as its qualifying points were reduced from 50-20-10-4 for the top four finishers to 20-8-4-2. Without any other qualifying points, this year's winner will figure to be on the Derby bubble.
In constructing this year's Road to the Kentucky Derby points races, it's clear Churchill Downs officials followed Janet Jackson's lead and asked, "What have you done for me lately?" Since Animal Kingdom won the Spiral and Kentucky Derby in 2011, the Spiral winner has followed with a Derby fourth-place finish, two non-starters, and three off-the-board finishes.
I was disappointed to see the Spiral downgraded in points. The race offered a chance for turf 3-year-olds to try Turfway's synthetic surface, a switch not as dramatic as a move to dirt. The race served exactly that role for Animal Kingdom.
Oddly enough, while Turfway's Derby prep on a synthetic surface has lost some stature in terms of Derby points, Churchill added a European Road to the Derby this year that prominently features synthetic track races this month in Ireland and England. The points reduction for the Jeff Ruby Steaks figures to negatively impact the race this year and going forward.
The Derby points system certainly has impacted races. When Churchill used graded stakes earnings to determine the field from 1986-2012, Gulfstream's Hutcheson Stakes (G3) saw 18 of its starters also compete in the Derby from 1986-2008. Since the Derby points system began in 2013—leaving out sprint races—just one Hutcheson starter has entered the Derby starting gate.
Without Derby points, the Hutcheson slid from grade 2 to grade 3 in 2014. Purse reductions in 2015 and 2016 saw the race go from $200,000 to $100,000. The race wasn't contested in 2017 and this year will be offered March 24.
Consider the Illinois Derby (G3), which from 1986-2012 produced 18 Derby starters, including 2002 winner War Emblem. Since 2012, the Illinois Derby hasn't had a Derby starter. The Illinois Derby purse has fallen from $750,000 in 2013 to $250,000 last year. It was not run in 2016 and is not scheduled in 2018.
From 1986-2011, Keeneland's Lexington Stakes (G3) saw 36 starters show up in the Derby, including 1999 winner Charismatic as well as seven others who placed. Since being offered as a low-level points race, the Lexington hasn't seen a single Derby starter. It will see its points increased from 10-4-2-1 last year to 20-8-4-2 this year.