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. 


Leave a Comment:

Old Old Cat

Amen, Amen

Well said by someone with credibility.  Tweak number one.  more to follow.

23 Apr 2013 6:56 PM
Karen in Indiana

Yes, you are correct.

23 Apr 2013 9:39 PM

I think this is a very good idea as I think the fillies should have a shot at it too.  I know many would argue that the fillies then should be facing the boys in the Derby preps, which Genuine Risk did in the Wood, but I think the point that you made about a Grade 1 winning filly versus a Grade 3 winning colt is a good one.  Maybe some of the upper level filly races should be considered as point races towards those final Derby entry spots.  At least maybe it should be considered.

23 Apr 2013 11:14 PM

Yes, yes, yes.

Trainer even said he might have suggested the Derby for Dreaming of Julia if it wasn't for the stinkin' points.

24 Apr 2013 12:49 AM

Makes sense to me. Everybody loves to see a filly take on the boys. I'll never forget how mad my dad was when Curlin lost to "Rags" in the Belmont. He loved Curlin, thought he was going to pop his top. Heck yeah, throw a filly in there to rock the boat.

24 Apr 2013 2:42 AM

Will they be changing this so that fillies can run against the boys? Would love to see Julia run in the derby.

24 Apr 2013 2:53 PM

Ladybri, you won't see any changes this year. CD would not want to change the rules in midstream anyway. We'll have to wait to see if any adjustments are made.

25 Apr 2013 8:44 AM

I love the wild card idea!  Wish they could implement it this year!!

25 Apr 2013 1:36 PM
Plod Boy Phil

Completely disagree.

Looking at the last two fillies that won the Derby,  each had been tested against the boys.  Winning Colors won the SA derby and Genuine Risk ran 3rd in the Wood.  The latter went on to prove her medal by running well in the Preakness and Belmont.  Had the current point system been in effect, it's likely her connections would have planned accordingly.

Recent history has shown a string of failures from highly regarded fillies, including the favored Serena's Song (a man among girls, Excellent Meeting, Life and Althea.  None came close to hitting the board.  The one recent 'success', Eight Belles, ran so hard trying to compete,  she essentially killed herself in the process.

As for Dreaming of Julia, if the Pletcher camp had any clue she was going to run out of her skin in the Fla Oaks,  she'd have been in the Fla Derby.  Let's see if she even wins the Oaks.

In the mean time,  qualify as the rules require,  or open the Oaks to colts.

25 Apr 2013 7:03 PM

no, no, and no!!! Look, if D.O.J.  was so special, how come Todd Pletcher, one of the most successful trainers in history, not see this and point her to the Derby prep races? Y'all are basing this on one race. Besides that, every horse has the same chance to qualify under the new system. If you wanted to change the process that the pts do not determine ALL of the entrants and have some other way set up for the remaining entrants, I could see that. But a wild-card entry just for Fillies? I don't see how that's fair.

25 Apr 2013 11:30 PM
Pedigree Ann

Point of fact: Den's Legacy, sitting with 20 points, is also a graded SW - he won the G3 Generous S at Hollywood Park last fall. It was a grass race - indeed, Denny will probably go back to grass or AW (why didn't they send him to the Blue Grass?) at this point - but a graded race nonetheless.

26 Apr 2013 11:24 AM

Someone else came up with this and it needs to be shared so maybe it can be suggested.

The top two point earning fillies have the option of the last two spots in the Derby field.  If they pass, than 19 & 20 go back to the next two colts on the list.

The fillies cannot be cross entered.

26 Apr 2013 11:30 AM

Pedigree Ann, you are correct Den's Legacy (who was suspected of pulling out of contention at the time this article was written and did) has 20 points and is a grade III stakes winner. I think you'll agree there is no debating (at this point) whether the grade III winners are outclassed by Dreaming of Julia.

26 Apr 2013 12:11 PM
Pedigree Ann

Eric -

Don't know until they try. Sometimes the fillies/mares look really good among themselves, but when they try open company, they can't compete. Bayakoa couldn't. Susan's Girl couldn't. That's why they run the races.

27 Apr 2013 2:15 PM

While so much focus goes to strategies to fill the 20th spot for the Derby, it would benefit the horses and racing if they actually made it harder to get in and limited the field more.  How about making it a minimum of 50 points to get in??  This would make trainers more serious and contentious in the prep races, and make the "Derby" a more serious race as opposed to the brawl of a sideshow it has become.

29 Apr 2013 1:39 PM

In case someone is still hanging around: to point a filly for the Derby requires passing on the Oaks. The boys' path to the Derby is designed to avoid such sacrifices.

10 May 2013 10:44 PM

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