Wild Card for Fillies - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the April 23, 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 The Road to the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) points system seems to have survived its inaugural year without generating much controversy. The leading contenders appear to be a solid group that have been steadily improving through the late winter and early spring.

Buzzing in the background, however, are several suggested tweaks that many would like Churchill Downs to consider. Several owners and trainers continue to view the 10-point assignment given the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) as an excessive knock against a race that typically crowns the 2-year-old champion for the year.

Part of the joy for racing fans is to watch racing’s stars compete in the biggest races, so awarding a few more points to the Juvenile would certainly leave the Kentucky Derby door open for a horse with a strong following. Granted, had last year’s juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby stayed healthy, the 24 points accumulated by the son of Harlan’s Holiday looks like it would have been enough to put him into the field.

At the beginning of the year, 30 points was the anticipated minimum number of points required to get into the Derby, but the horses occupying slots 20 through 24 all have 20 points. They are, as of April 22, Den’s Legacy, who has placed in three graded races this year; Charming Kitten, who finished third in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I); Winning Cause, winner of the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. III); Code West, second in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II); and Tiz a Minister, third in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II).

Perhaps the biggest disappointment with the new system is the extra barrier put in front of exceptionally talented fillies. We understand the argument—let the fillies get tested against the boys during the prep season, and if they belong, they’ll earn the points to get in.

But it still leaves the door solidly shut for an owner whose filly has performed so exceptionally well against her own sex that she deserves a shot at the blanket of roses.

Dreaming of Julia, who won the Gulfstream Oaks (gr. II) by 213⁄4 lengths, is this year’s poster child for Churchill Downs to consider a “Filly Option” in its points program. The daughter of A.P. Indy not only won the Oaks so decisively, but ran 1 1⁄8 miles nearly two seconds faster than the boys later on the card in the Besilu Stables Florida Derby (gr. I). The final time for the Oaks was 1:48.97 while Orb hit the wire in the Florida Derby at 1:50.87.

We believe a case could be made for implementing a wild card in the 20th slot. Among the colts with 20 points, only Winning Cause is a graded stakes winner. Whom would fans want to see most in that spot? A grade III winner or a grade I-winning filly that won a prestigious graded stakes by more than 21 lengths?

Fillies also are good for handle. When Genuine Risk won the Kentucky Derby in 1980, the Derby handle was up 4% from the previous year. Wagering on the Derby when Winning Colors won in 1988 rose 15.5% from the previous year and, more telling, fell 8.1% the following year. The Derby handle was a record $12,118,527 in 2008 when ill-fated Eight Belles faced Big Brown. In 2009 the Derby handle dropped 19.2% but that likely had more to do with a collapsing world economy than anything else.

No question, though, a talented filly going up against the boys generates a lot of excitement. The wild card option would be just that, an option; one that preserves the ultimate goal of the new points system to put the most deserving and talented field in the Derby gates. 

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