Talking Points - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the June 23, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @EJMitchellKy on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell Churchill Downs shook up the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) trail last week by tossing out its requirement to qualify with accumulated graded stakes earnings and replacing it with a points system.

The new system has significantly narrowed owners’ and trainers’ options toward earning spots in the Derby starting gate, but the changes should also help create fields with more legitimate contenders.

When trainers were mapping out a road to the Kentucky Derby this year, they had about 185 graded stakes worldwide to choose from. The earnings from those graded stakes were all that mattered, not the grade nor the location nor the age of the horse. In 2012 a minimum of $184,700 in graded earnings put a horse in the Derby.

The new system reduces the number of qualifying races to 36 and separates these races into four groups; each group has its own set of points awarded to the top four finishers. Charts showing the specific races and points can be found on page 1760. The goal of the points system, in essence, is to reward horses that are in the best form closest to the Kentucky Derby.

Sabercat, a grade III-winning son of Bluegrass Cat, is this year’s poster child for what was wrong with the earnings system and why a points system is an improvement.

Blessed with a rich purse account fed by slot machines, Delta Downs in Louisiana has been able to offer a $1 million grade III race for 2-year-olds for all except one year since 2006 (the purse dropped to $750,000 in 2009 but went back to $1 million in 2010). The winner of the Delta Jackpot had been assured a spot in the Derby. Sabercat, for example, earned $600,000 of his year-to-date earnings of $782,849 in the Jackpot. Prior to winning at Delta Downs, Sabercat had won a minor stakes at Monmouth Park. He went on to finish eighth in the Rebel Stakes (gr. II), was third, beaten 93⁄4 lengths in the Arkansas Derby, and finished 15th in the Kentucky Derby.

Because gaming money continues to bolster the purses of relatively modest-quality races, graded stakes earnings are no longer a reliable barometer of quality. The points system is better because it assigns the most points to prep races of established quality.

The highest points, for example, are awarded to the key preps contested about a month before the Run for the Roses—Florida Derby (gr. I), Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), Arkansas Derby (gr. I), Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial (gr. I), the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), and the UAE Derby Sponsored by The Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group (UAE-II). These races are all worth 100 points to the winner.
Churchill Downs acknowledges that despite having spent 11 months working on its new system, there could be room for improvement and we agree there, too.

The calendar is the primary driver of the points system’s sliding scale. Churchill Downs placed little weight on late fall and early winter grade I stakes for 2-year-olds and the early winter graded stakes for 3-year-olds because they were too far out from the Derby. That does fit the racetrack’s goal of trying to build excitement closer to the main event, but it doesn’t make sense in identifying and rewarding quality contenders and it may miss an opportunity to build excitement earlier.

In particular, the logic breaks down with the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), which is among the lowest value races. As it stands today, winning the Juvenile—which often christens that year’s juvenile champion—is worth a mere 10 points. Ten points also goes to the winners of the grade I Norfolk Stakes, Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity, Champagne Stakes, and CashCall Futurity. In points, these grade I races are worth the same as the grade III El Camino Real Derby and the ungraded Smarty Jones Stakes.

Juvenile contenders have been well represented in the Derby over the years. This year’s Derby field included nine of 13 horses that started in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, including the top five finishers of the Juvenile. In no other year have so many Juvenile contenders gone on to become Derby starters. It is, however, the second time the top five Juvenile finishers all made it to the Derby; the last time was in 2007 when Street Sense became the first horse to complete the Juvenile-Derby double.

If the goal is to entice fans to follow the prep races more closely, doesn’t it fit the system to start grabbing their attention during the top juvenile races? And what better attention-grabber than the Breeders’ Cup World Championships? The points system is a step in the right direction, but let’s keep the focus on quality and the sport’s rising stars and the fans will follow.

6 Comments

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an ole railbird

my mothers poilicy, was that theres always some good comes out of the worse sitiuations. the good i see in the new rules, to quilify for the kentucky derby are. #1 it will go a long ways to change the poilicy & opinions of the last few years,that you cant run a thoroughbred horse but once every 6 weeks or 2 months. under these new rules, there will be a lot of cases where it will be nessesary to race a horse 2 & 3 times a month.( can you imagine the cries from the bleeding hearts). the good part of that is it will cull the weak out before the derby. therefore leaving room for the sounder type horses. and maybe keep the weaker ones out of the breeding sheds. thats my opinion. " an ole railbird".

19 Jun 2012 1:47 PM
Wrensflight

As usual, I agree with you, railbird. Although the point system may need some fine tuning, it does seem that, in the past few years, horses made it to the Derby who were not legitimate contenders. I also remember the days of Damascus, Dr. Fager, Kelso, Carry Back, and Buckpasser. These horses were not treated like hothouse flowers. I've often wondered about the modern trend in conditioning race horses and how the horses actually benefit from these methods.

20 Jun 2012 2:22 PM
Ranagulzion

The objective of Kentucky Derby qualification system should be to have the highest quality field in the starting gates on the first Saturday in May ...not the manipulation of the preparation race programs that trainers should have the freedom to plot for their charges beginning with their juvenile season.

Also the new system is trying to make the composition of the race too predictable and homogenous, favoring late developers. The previous system did not hinder the class horses of the crop from making it and gave room for the surprise mystery horse that added intrigue and excitement to the build-up and the race itself a la Trinniberg, Spanish Chesnut etc.

What should've been tweaked was the draw for post-position to favour the highest qualified horses (perhaps giving those connections priority in choosing gate number).

21 Jun 2012 3:12 PM
Johnny D

I don't really see Sabercat as the poster child for change.  They brought him along a little late to make an impact in the Derby, he still beat 5 and maybe was a bit lesser talent wise than the top choices but IMO he deserved to be there because he earned it.  

Under the new system he still would've qualified.  I think that if they reduced the field size to 15 that would make for a much nicer race.  I am not so sure anything needs to be changed though.  That's why the Derby is so special, it is so hard to win.  

21 Jun 2012 6:33 PM
smarie

It will be even harder to win in the future as American breeders insist on breeding milers and sprinters. Horses who can get the Derby distance, like I'll Have Another are basically snubbed here and wind up overseas. Sunday Silence was another example of the oftentimes foolishness of breeders here. They breed horses who are unsound; ones who raced well on meds. but bombed when taken off these meds. How can we expect to get a Triple Crown Winner again when our horses are bred to run a mile, if that? Guess our next Triple Crown winner will be an import. How sad this all is.

24 Jun 2012 10:43 PM
Deltalady

@smarie, I agree with you. After checking up on where I'll Have Another is going, and receiving assurances from Three Chimneys they will be facilitating updates from his new farm, I'm glad Little Red will get a shot at immortality in Japan that he would not have gotten here.  Even if Mr. Reddam were so foolish as to consider trying to subsidize the first few years to keep him here, he would not have gotten the best mares.  In Japan, he will get the best of the best, and in doing so, he will have a chance to establish his own legacy.  A pox on all the houses of the American breeding industry. This bunch who runs around paying $16 Million for the likes of The Green Monkey, who insist on "breeding for speed, speed, speed" to more and more fragile lines, are on the verge of falling off a cliff. Sometimes, you just have to step aside and let them jump off the cliff.  It was amazing to me to watch the Royal Ascot this past week as half the features were marathon type races, of which we in the U.S. have little acquaintance.  We want more and more Trinnibergs and could not value a horse like Simenon who in less than 5 days ran one race at 2 1/2 mi and another at 2 5/8 mi, beating his competition by a total of 13 lengths! The little red horse will be just fine, and he has a big rooting section on this side of the Pacific.  I'm hoping he throws the next Japan Triple Crown winner, like Sunday Silence did twice.  Who knows we may get to see a son of a son of Sunday Silence and the son of I'll Have Another battle it out on the track.  I can look forward to that about as much as I am to seeing Zenyatta's and Rachel's colts meet in 2015!

25 Jun 2012 6:21 PM

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