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.

12 Comments

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Porter

30 points is going to be the low threshold for a Derby spot ? My calculations says it's going to be at least 40. With eight 50 point races (8 diff winners locks)and then the seven 100 point races (even with a couple from the 50 point races repeating in these, also locks) and with 40 points for second in these races, that could be the hole field of twenty, if there are minimal repeaters. With todays trainers, once they get to 50 points, they will just tain up the Derby. All the second place finishers from the eight 100 point races should be in with 40 points.    

05 Feb 2013 7:29 PM
Ranagulzion

So Darren Rogers of Churchill Downs really said "We realized we needed to have more control over this thing”? Well that explains it all. They certainly took control by: 1)blocking Fillies from the Derby (mandating them to race against colts before the Derby hurts the sport because fillies of the calibre of a Rachel Alexandra shouldn't have to prove their quality to Churchill Down authorities before the big race unless the connetions of the particular horse want to satisfy themselves)

2)regulating the pace scenario through blocking Graded stakes speed horses of the ilk of Songandaprayer, Spanish Chesnut, Keyed Enty, Triniberg etc.

3)restricing the qualifying options for trainers pointing their charges to the Derby thus manipulating training programs

4) restricting the amount of purse money that horses can earn on the Derby trail by cutting some races and downgrading their status by the arbitrary allocation of points.

This manipulation and control of the Derby qualifying system is suffocating. What has happened with this points system amounts to a strangle hold by Churchill Downs.  

05 Feb 2013 11:28 PM
Davids

The point system may also cause major hair loss for some of the trainers with numerous promising 3 year olds.

Can you imagine the headaches and anxiety this system is causing Todd Pletcher or Bob Baffert sitting there, calculator in hand, with horses names, stakes races, and points scored weaving a way to Churchill Down. I hope they were good at math.

06 Feb 2013 6:28 AM
lunar spook

It will never happen but it would be great if the derby would limit the race to a 12 horse field heres why :  a) we would have a better grip on the best horse instead of the calvary stampede that is the derby  b)with fewer spots horses would need more points and we would get more races with more good horses going head to head  C) the derby would be a safer better race to maybe give us a true champion afleet alex and risen star would probably both one the triple crown had the derby been a normal field like it was in the seventies

06 Feb 2013 10:13 AM
Pedigree Ann

Ranagulzion -

Songandaprayer would have made it, with his win in the Fountain of Youth and second in the Blue Grass.

Another two would have been on the cusp - Spanish Chestnut won the San Rafael (a G2 mile) and was 3rd in the Santa Catalina (Lewis), while Keyed Entry was 2nd in the Gotham and 3rd in the Wood Memorial.

Only Trinniberg of the horses you cite would not have a shot of making the field.

06 Feb 2013 10:17 AM
Ranagulzion

Does anybody believe that a filly of the calibre of say Eight Belles (runner-up to Big Brown in kentucky Derby 2008) needed to prove herself against colts before the first Saturday in May?  If not, what does that say about the new points system, progress or regression?

06 Feb 2013 1:04 PM
CHIEF PICAWINNA

I like that they changed it,but I think it will have to be refined.Nobody knows how this will play out.I have an idea that this will make the exotics pay a lot more because colts just winning one race as a 3yo will make the gate and their could be several that fit this profile.The Sport needs to acknowledge the fact that 2yo form in a colts 3yo season dosent mean what it did when they were able to run every two weeks,thats all in the past now at least for the next decade.

06 Feb 2013 3:54 PM
Deltalady

I predict the trainers will adjust, like they do to all things. They have to. Yes, Churchill Downs owns the Derby, and they certainly have the right to "take control" and ensure the future remains bright for the "greatest two minutes in sports".  Thank goodness someone is in charge and they aren't timid about their marquee world event. Otherwise, under the casino-fed purses for some of the lower graded races, we could have wound up watching glorified claimers or sprinters instead of qualified clasic horses! No system is perfect, and they no doubt will be tweaking the points system once the shakedown first cycle is completed. Overall, I think there is a lot to like about the points system.

07 Feb 2013 12:41 PM
tommyO

Still relevant story from trainer Richard Marsh, from his autobiography, A Trainer to Two Kings, on the advent of his great horse Persimmon experiencing his first loss. Especially at a time when so many two-year-olds are pushed by Derby fever.  "At this distance of time from the race I can still own to being very much upset over his defeat, even though I had in a measure been prepared for it for reasons already given. (coughing) Knowing what I did, reflection brought much consolation. I realized, too, that Watts had ridden him very gently. Whe he realized the colt was going to be beaten he immediately eased him, and consequently the race did him no harm, even though he should never have taken part in it. It does a horse as a rule such a deal of harm-at least, the risk is a very live one- to be raced when not in a fit condition to do his best. Many a good horse has been ruined in that way. The tender and humane methods of Watts, born of the discretion that was in him no matter how exciting and absorbing the circumstances, saved Persimmon from any harm that day of his defeat for the Middle Park Plate. He never ran again as a two-year-old. He had won at Ascot and at Goodwood, and had failed at Newmarket." Persimmon went on to win the Epsom Derby, St. Leger and Jockey Club Stakes at 3 and the Ascot Gold Cup at 4.

07 Feb 2013 5:35 PM
TerriZ

The best comment I have liked so far is from Edie Plesa, Jr. The trainer of Itsmyluckyday, said that he was only go to run him one more time before the Derby, regardless of the points. His next race is the Florida Derby. And his main concern is the horse and not the Ky Derby. If he doesn't have enough points, he'll enter him in the Preakness.

I wish more trainers would be more concerned about the horse than the Derby.

Best of luck to Eddie Plesa, Jr. It's been a long time since we had a contender from South Florida.

08 Feb 2013 11:46 AM
AnneM

Can someone explain to me the logic of leaving out the Illinois Derby from the point system (and that race has produced Derby winners) but including the UAE Derby which has 0 bering on the Derby.

10 Feb 2013 1:45 PM
EJMitchellKy

AnneM, there is no logic behind the omission of the Illinois Derby. It is largely political. Churchill Downs Inc. owns Arlington Park and the Illinois Derby is run at Hawthorne, Arlington's competitor in the Chicago market.

CDI, however, will tell you that the Illinois Derby overall has lacked the quality of other Kentucky Derby preps and has been merely a "back door" into the Derby.

14 Feb 2013 8:20 AM

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