Chasing Points - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the February 9, 2013 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell Thirty points. Under Churchill Downs’ new points system, 30 points is expected to be the minimum a horse will need to get into the 20-horse field for the May 4 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).

And if the points system works as intended, the field battling for the blanket of roses should include the best 3-year-olds in the country.

But at this point in the year, there are questions—particularly about whether the points system fits with the way most trainers are conditioning their horses heading into the Triple Crown.

Before this year, earnings in graded stakes were the criteria used to determine the Derby field. Stars as 2-year-olds didn’t have to run as much early in their 3-year-old seasons because they had already accumulated the earnings required to make the Derby lineup. The trend since 2007 has been to run Triple Crown contenders only twice before the Derby.

A couple of factors pushed Churchill Downs to abandon the graded earnings system and adopt a points system. First, the quality of stakes as judged by purse money was getting skewed as more states adopted casino gaming. Boyd Gaming has been offering $1 million for the grade III Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes for most years since 2002, assuring that the winner of the race would qualify for the Derby. Second, as the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association talked openly two years ago about tying race-day medication policy to the graded status of a race, Churchill Downs’ executives got really uncomfortable.

“It could have been a problem if key races started losing their grades,” said Darren Rogers, senior director of communications and media services for Churchill Downs. “We realized we needed to have more control over this thing.”

So the points system was born, with its emphasis on 3-year-old racing. The Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), for example, is among 19 “Kentucky Derby Prep Season” races worth 10-4-2-1 to the top four finishers. The same goes for the grade I Champagne Stakes, Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity, and the CashCall Futurity. The point value of these races is on par with the ungraded Smarty Jones Stakes.

Points don’t start ramping up until Feb. 23, the beginning of the “Kentucky Derby Championship Series.” Eight races in the first leg of the championship series (through to March 24) are valued at 50-20-10-5. Think of this section as the Sweet Sixteen of college basketball’s NCAA Tournament. The second leg of the championship series—the equivalent of the Elite Eight—includes seven races valued at 100-40-20-10; they are the Besilu Stables Florida Derby (gr. I), Louisiana Derby (gr. II), UAE Derby (UAE-II), Wood Memorial (gr. I), Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), and the Arkansas Derby (gr. I).

Right now, Shanghai Bobby is tied with Goldencents at the top of the points leaderboard, both with 24 points. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and 2-year-old champion male of last year is expected to pass on the Besilu Stables Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) and have the Florida Derby be his last race before the Derby. If the son of Harlan’s Holiday runs into trouble in the Florida Derby and finishes worse than fourth, however, he might not make the Derby field.

Not seeing a healthy juvenile champion in the Derby is a big hole in the system.

“He only needs six points,” Rogers said about Shanghai Bobby. “If he can’t get six points between now and the Derby, then maybe he doesn’t belong.” Having said that, Rogers did say he recognizes the marketing value of having the champion in the field and added the system will need adjusting. Perhaps the value of the Juvenile could be bumped up or a bonus offered to the horse named as the juvenile champion.

The logic behind emphasizing the later races is understood, but there are problems here, too. Will trainers now be more concerned about winning one of a handful of prep races just to qualify for the Derby rather than focusing on building up their horses’ conditioning so they’re peaking in the Derby? Four weeks is a long time to keep these elite athletes in top form.

By focusing on the races for 3-year-olds, Rogers said the points system will identify the best horses and create more excitement leading up to the Derby because such a large part of the field isn’t set. Under the graded earnings system, he said there could have been 11-12 horses that were essential shoo-ins provided they stayed healthy. Now, he said, there will be more buildup and more anticipation.

The old system had its flaws, so we’re hoping the new points system can successfully patch those holes without replacing them with an entire new set. In 13 weeks, we’ll know.

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