A Bettor Derby Day - By Evan Hammonds

Originally published in the May 21, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Evan Hammonds  

By Evan HammondsThe Thoroughbred racing industry should be riding the “high” it got off this year’s rendition of America’s greatest horse race, the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). A record attendance for the day under the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs followed the third-largest crowd for Oaks day. Solid betting figures, decent television ratings, and a winner with an outspoken owner—what will he say next?—make for a nice run-up to the May 21 Preakness Stakes (gr. I).

Anyone who would want to mess with the Derby would stir champagne, right?

No institution, however sacred, is immune to change. In 1957, geldings were finally permitted to compete in the Belmont Stakes. In 1983, The Jockey Club accepted women members. In 1997, Keeneland installed a public-address system and hired a race caller. Just last month Churchill Downs ran the Cliff’s Edge Derby Trial (gr. III) under the lights for the first time.

The Derby itself might benefit from a few tweaks, particularly as they relate to how the final field is determined and how post positions are drawn.

Following a 23-horse cavalry charge in the 100th Kentucky Derby in 1974 and a 21-horse field in 1981, the field size has been limited to 20 starters. While many have proposed to limit the field to less than that, 20 doesn’t always mean 20.

Consider the 2011 Run for the Roses. The race drew 22 entries the Wednesday before the race, with only 20 permitted to start based on their graded stakes earnings. On that Friday, Uncle Mo was scratched, but the rules did not permit Sway Away, No. 21 on the earnings list, to join the field. Needless to say, the colt’s connections were not pleased when 19 went postward, with trainer Jeff Bonde calling Sway Away a “victim of the system.”

Most other races in North America allow also-eligibles. The nation’s tote system can handle the 24 entries on the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Why shouldn’t the Derby draw a 22-horse field with a pair of also-eligibles that could draw in should there be a defection or two?

In 2002, Windward Passage, the winner of that year’s Rebel Stakes (gr. III), was No. 21 on the list and didn’t draw into the field despite the scratch of Danthebluegrassman the day before the Derby. The breeder/owner of Windward Passage? Team Valor Racing, headed by Barry Irwin, who won this year’s Derby with Animal Kingdom.

“It’s not so much an owner’s question as it is how it affects the bettors,” Irwin said recently. “It’s the advance wagering on Friday; that’s the issue as far as I can see.”

It’s an issue that doesn’t hold a whole lot of water. While there is advance wagering, it has traditionally been a small fraction of what is bet on the Derby. And, as more wagering moves online, refunds become less of a hassle.

For the owners, it allows that shot at the roses, despite the longshot odds. As for Windward Passage, he shipped to Texas and finished fourth in the Lone Star Derby (gr. III).

“In real life if your horse is that far down on the list, the chances of your horse being the Derby winner are pretty slim anyway,” Irwin said. “So, if you’re going to knock out a contender, that’s one thing; but if you’re just filling the gate, that’s another thing.”

Once horses are entered, there needs to be a better way of determining post positions. A blind draw is fine for a giveaway at a carnival or a kid’s birthday party, but a blind draw for a sporting event of the Derby’s magnitude is wrong. While it creates some suspense and garners some airtime, it’s time for this method to go.

We couldn’t agree more with Matthew Gatsas’ “Industry Voices” editorial in the April 30 edition of The Blood-Horse (page 1156). He wrote: “Simply give the connections of the top earner the first pick, continue down the list, and the 20th selection goes to the final qualifier.”

He pointed out that no other major sport relies on the blind draw, and he’s right. Home field advantage in the playoffs based on regular season performance is in play for the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL. The fastest qualifiers get the best slots in NASCAR and other motor sports. Even the NCAA men’s and women’s college basketball tournaments—March Madness—are seeded.
While there are plenty of upsets during March Madness, and the No. 1-seeded teams don’t always reach the Final Four, everyone knows the best horse doesn’t always win the Derby. That’s the sporting life. However, in the case of the Derby, the better horses have earned the right to be given better chances.

Jacqueline Duke contributed to this article.

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