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.


Leave a Comment:


Here's another suggestion: instead of using graded stakes earnings, assign a point system whereby a horse earns points for finishing 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in a graded stakes, with a "sliding" scale of points depending on whether the race was Grade 1, 2, or 3.  That will prevent a horse who won a Grade 3 stakes with an inflated purse from possibly displacing a more accomplished horse that has been running in higher class, more competitive races.  We all know there are tracks throwing money into their less popular preps in an attempt to attract a big name, but that doesn't always work and they end up with starters that are below the elite class.

And let's limit the field to 14--even some of the best horses in Derby history have not been able to overcome the difficulties that can arise from a crowded field of 20.

17 May 2011 9:30 AM

I agree. The field of 20 horses is rather crowded as it is, which makes the derby more about the trip and the post position than it does the best horse/jockey. I think a field of 14-16 would make the derby much more exciting and competitive.

17 May 2011 10:06 AM

Thanks for the comment palominolady, but for reducing the field to 14...fuggetaboutit. History has shown us that 20 seems about right.

17 May 2011 10:16 AM
Rachel NH

Keep the blind draw, we're not football, it's part of horse racing. geesh.


"also eligible" list warrants study.

17 May 2011 10:32 AM

20 is two many why? Is their any bigger disadvantage then the 1 hole in the K Derby? Flat out unfair..

I also do not believe 2 year old stakes earnings should matter..

I believe this leads to more injuries to horses with owners looking to get a faster return and not allowing the horses muscles to develop fully.

17 May 2011 11:22 AM
Criminal Type

Evan, you can say "fuggetaboutit" but, that does't mean we will. In my opinion 20 horses is an accident looking for a place to happen. Every year I hold my breath during the Derby hoping all the horses (and riders) make it home safely. You can argue that none of the recent injuries had anything to do with the size of the field and you would probably be correct. All that being said, is it worth the risk to have a 20 horse field of young, some still very green, horses in a mile and a quarter free for all ? And when something goes wrong will they have to face the torture and scrutiny that Larry Jones endured after Eight Belles ? I agree a new system should be put into place for entrants to the Derby, but it is not going to be a simple task. Whatever is decided someone is going to be unhappy with it.

17 May 2011 11:24 AM

Basing the post position draw on graded earnings would create more problems than it would solve in my opinion. It would result in the tracks that host prep races being in a free-for-all battle - each upping the ante to attract the best field of contenders. As it is we have tracks creating stakes events specifically for highly regarded thoroughbreds ie Timely Writer/Uncle Mo. We will have an epidemic of that practice in the future if graded earnings are given undue weigh.

17 May 2011 11:38 AM

Unfortunately, because of the MONEY, the KD will not be limited to a 14 horse field until after there is some cataclysmic accident. Remember, non-horsemen, these horses are only three (some of them, not even that). They are very green, mentally and emotionally. Having a 20 horse cavalry charge year after year is only asking for trouble. You'd think the leaders of this sport could have just a little more wisdom.

17 May 2011 12:42 PM
Fran Loszynski

I personally don't feel graded earnings should determine if a horse will run in the Kentucky Derby. It is the biggest fan-rated race so then why aren't the horses that fans care for and love in the race. Sway Away is loved by many fans, his fan base were left out in the cold, why? he is an awesome horse and fans following his pedigree like Afleet Alex were disappointed. I think a racehorse should run in the Kentucky Derby who is running based on fan bias. After all if we were not on the rail, it would be a T.V. program alone with a cheering track piped in! Go Sway Away in the Preakness, show your stuff!

17 May 2011 12:59 PM

I think the Derby fields should be limited to 14. These free-for-all fields are dangerous to both horse and jockey. Some statistics: Average field size by decade - 1950 - 2011.

1950-'59 - 14.5. 1960-'69 - 12.6. 1970-'79 - 14.9. 1980-'89 - 17.1. 1990-'99 - 16.7. '00-'09 - 18.7. '10-'11 - 19.5.

Our Triple Crown winners never had to battle 19 other horses to find the winner's circle. Are there horses in every Derby that really don't belong? Yes. As you can see, the fields are getting bigger by average all the time. By limiting the field to the best 3 year olds, we have a better chance of getting another Triple Crown winner IMO. The best horses should make for the best race. As it is now, too often the best horse cannot win because of all the incidents that occur in a 20 horse field. Determining which horses make the race could be done in several ways and there are good suggestions that have been put forth in the past. I believe that a smaller field would be much safer and would showcase the top 3 year olds much more effectively.

17 May 2011 1:52 PM

I agree with kincsem regarding the size of the field.  I believe the blind draw is one of the things that keeps the race interesting.  If I had a say in how horses qualified in, I would base it on distance and times - the fastest 7 at 1 1/8 mile, fastest 7 at 1 1/16 mile, fastest 6 at a mile, 1 AE from each group, with previously agreed standards for track, track type, conditions, etc.  It might be more complicated than earnings, but it might also give us faster horses - it is a race, after all.

17 May 2011 2:21 PM

A little point - geldings were originally allowed in the Belmont Stakes, from its inception until 1918.  They even got a weight break (3 pounds, I think) from the colts.  But then they were banned from the race and not re-instated until 1957.

The first gelding to win the Belmont was Creme Fraiche (1985).

source: NYRA

17 May 2011 2:59 PM

The idea of giving the best horses, that is, those with the highest graded stakes earnings the priority in post position selection seems very good indeed.  I can see no downside to this.  Knowing how important it is to not only get into the field but also get a desireable postposition might encourage stronger preps and more prep appearances by the leading contenders.  This kind of tweaking of the system is certainly worthy of serious consideration.

17 May 2011 3:24 PM

This is horse racing not another sport. Luck of the draw is how it's done (like a flip of a coin is much better? lol). It's the 1st leg of the TC, it's not meant to be easy. I don't see why the best horses should be entitled to the best position when they are more talent anyway, that's kinda stacking the deck in their favor, don't you think? Shortening the field only adds to their advantage. There will always be upsets in racing. There have been Preakness & Belmont winners who weren't so great either (it's part of horse racing). Just my opion but if we make the field smaller & give the best horses the best pp's, what's next shortening the distance to make it easier to win(which I know has been considered awhile back). Sorry, I don't think it's such a good idea IMO.

17 May 2011 4:16 PM
7 1/2 Furlongs

Mr. Hammonds -

I agree with several of your readers.  Go with the blind draw.  That way, all entrants have equal opportunity for top post positions.

Besides, placing undue emphasis on graded earning might sway race tracks and owners to the "win early and often" mentality during the two-year-old season.

In the long run, I don't think that's the best thing for the horse.

17 May 2011 7:05 PM

I agree that they should change the rules regarding A.E.'s, or change the rules regarding scratches. Scratches should not be allowed unless approved by a track vet. As for the "blind" draw, otherwise known as an open draw, watch what you wish for. In harness racing they went to a "earnings dictated" draw for some major races, such as the Hambletonian, and it has been terrible. You don't actually want to make it easier for the biggest earner to win the race. One of the reasons why the Derby is so popular with fans and bettors is because it is so wide open. Most races have an open draw, and the Derby should too. Especially now that we have horses coming into the race with 4 starts. What have they really proven? Why should they have an advantage?

17 May 2011 7:26 PM

Sway Away's predictament was the result of him not running a step in his last two races.  Had he been included he would have just crowded things at the back of the pack.

17 May 2011 10:02 PM

Count only 3yo Graded Earnings. Many of the 2yo graded winners are nowhere to be found come Derby Day, or, have distance limitations and are compromised as the races get longer and the true distance horses catch up developmentally.

18 May 2011 1:49 AM

I agree that Sway Away got a pretty bad deal and that AEs should be allowed for this race.  However, I cannot promote a field of more than 20- as another blogger so appropriately said- an accident waiting to happen.  We've lost ArchArchArch and Comma in a filed of 19 this year- thankfully there was no "fall" to risk other horses or jocks.

On Post draws, however, I could not disagree with you more.  EVERY race at every track in this country has a blind draw- it's just not done in public, but in the racing secretary's office.  "Money Talks" should not be the standard to decide the starting gate placings.  

In fact, that talking money should be the results of 3 year old graded stakes earnings period to determine the field. Top two year old are pushed too soon and rarely, in the past decade, have they carried that over at three.  Uncle Mo, To Honor & Serve, Boys at Toscanova, Rogue Romance, Tapizar... need I name more?  Had such a system for 3 yr old earnings been in place, Sway Away would have made the field, and Uncle Mo & his connections- rightfully so- would have been on the outside looking in.  A revised policy such as this would further insure that the race is filled with the most talented 3 year old at the moment rather than an overcampaigned and outrun 2 year old from last year.

18 May 2011 11:36 AM
Mike in SB

I agree that the method for determining post position should be changed. I know the blind draw is how it is done in other races, but how many other races in the United States have 20 starters? Either limit the field to 14 like the Preakness, Belmont and all Breeders Cup races or find another way to determine post position that doesn't eliminate the best horses because of a poor draw.

18 May 2011 3:40 PM
Fran Loszynski

IOway: An offspring of Afleet Alex has never crowded any field. I appreciate your opinion but you may just see something extraordinary Preakness Day, the kick in speed of his dear old dad AFleet Alex is in those hoofs, from "Sway Away" You heard here.

19 May 2011 8:47 AM

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