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.

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