As last-second shots fly, setting off celebrations or disappointment during this weekend's men's college basketball tournament, every fan understands what's on the line: a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
In recent years, horse racing's biggest events have done a decent job of providing similar clarity for fans through such tools as the Road to the Kentucky Derby points system, used to determine which horses will fill the starting gate; and the Breeders' Cup Challenge, a series of races that corresponds to World Championship races.
I have to admit that when Breeders' Cup first launched the Challenge series in 2007, I didn't see the point of, say, giving the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) winner an automatic bid to the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1). My thought was, "The Jockey Club Gold Cup winner always has a spot in the Classic."
As I realized the Challenge series provided clarity for new fans in a sport that most assuredly can lack definition, I understood the incentive better. Fans tuning in to the Jockey Club Gold Cup could see that these older horses trying a route of ground are the types of horses that will try the Classic. When those fans tuned in to the Juddmonte Spinster Stakes (G1), they could see that those fillies and mares could soon be starting in the Distaff (G1).
When Churchill Downs shifted to a points system for determining the Derby field, as opposed to graded stakes earnings, it did have an impact (previously covered in this column), but most of the top horses making the field would have been the same under either system. A significant advantage to the points system is that it's easier for fans to understand.
Given the success, I'd like to see other major races add similar systems. I like the automatic berth to the Preakness Stakes (G1) Maryland Jockey Club has added for the winner of the local Federico Tesio Stakes and would like to see the second leg of the Triple Crown add races like the Stonestreet Lexington Stakes (G3) at Keeneland and the Illinois Derby (G3) at Hawthorne Race Course, if the latter is continued as an annual event.
The Belmont Stakes (G1) could add automatic bids for winners of races like the local Peter Pan Stakes (G3) and Maryland's Barbaro Stakes.
Longtime fans understand the automatic bids I'm suggesting are for races that regularly supply starters to the final two classics. But as a guide for new fans, such additional bids would better define the award that's on the line for that stretch rally to victory, making that late move as exciting as a buzzer-beater to land an NCAA Tournament slot.