The more that I think about the Road to the Derby and all of the discussions that have happened because of the new qualifying point system, the more I believe that it is the 20 horse starting field that has the most significant impact on how horses prepare for the first Saturday in May.
It was the inferior field quality of the Sunland Derby that got me thinking that more is not better when it comes to the number of horses running in the Kentucky Derby. I felt that none of the Sunland horses should get in Derby off of a win in a race where six of the nine horses had only one win and four were coming off of their maiden win.
Black Onyx won the Spiral Stakes on Saturday going the mile and an eighth in slightly under 1:52, actual time 1:51.98. The race earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 90, which is the lowest of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, aka the 50 point races. Prior to the Spiral, Black Onyx’s best figure was an 81 that he earned on the turf at Gulfstream Park. These are not the speed figures of a Kentucky Derby winner. After the race trainer Kelly Breen declared, "That was the plan. If he won the Spiral, his next start would be the Derby. He's not nominated now, but he will be, in about 15 minutes."
If the Derby had a field of 14, horses like Black Onyx could not go from 0 to 50 in less than two minutes and get in the Derby. They would have to run again because most likely 50 points would not guarantee a spot in a smaller and higher quality Derby field of 14.
The new points system has had enough debate. Let’s take a more radical look at the Kentucky Derby and think about what would change if the maximum field were 14. Think about trainers would have to change the ways they prepare for the Derby. Think about how the quality of the Derby field would change. Think about how the actual running of the Derby would change. Think about how the smaller field might have impacted the history of the Triple Crown.
We all know that there has been no Triple Crown winner since 1978. There is nothing more exciting in thoroughbred racing than when a horse is heading to the Belmont Stakes with a chance to win the crown. Imagine the excitement if a horse actually had won the crown. Many people feel that excessively large Derby fields are one of the factors that may have prevented a Triple Crown winner from happening over the past 35 years.
Here are the 11 Triple Crown winners with the size of their Derby field noted parenthetically: Affirmed (11), Seattle Slew (15), Secretariat (13), Citation (6), Assault (17), Count Fleet (10), Whirlaway (11), War Admiral (20), Omaha (18), Gallant Fox (15), and Sir Barton (12). More than half of them began with a one starting gate Derby field.
There have been 11 horses lose the Derby and then go on to win the last two legs of the Triple Crown. In 1974 Little Current won the Preakness and Belmont after finishing fifth in a field of 23 in the Derby. Risen Star in 1988 finished second against 16 other horses. Hansel finished 10th competing with 15 others in 1991. Point Given in 2001 finished fourth in a field of 17, and in 2005 Afleet Alex finished third against 19 others.
You have to believe that Afleet Alex would have won the Triple Crown against a smaller field when you think about the athleticism he displayed when he was almost knocked to the ground in the final turn of the Preakness. What about Little Current losing the Derby in a field of 23?
I can hear the easy argument coming that the big field doesn’t matter because Big Brown won from post position 20 in 2008, and I’ll Have Another from the 19 hole last year. Yes, those horses did win from the outside of the auxillary gate, but we all know that those two were so good that they would have won from any starting spot. Big Brown’s superiority coming into the race was reflected in the 2-1 betting favoritism he received, even from the 20th post.
The Kentucky Derby should be a race where the best jockeys ride the best horses on an even playing field. The race should not be run with the fear that the chance of victory could easily be lost because there were too many horses. All of these problems were described in the chart of the 2012 Derby; horses got: soundly bumped, shuffled back, clipped heels, stumbled, got drilled, started in tight, steadied when forced in, went seven or eight wide, squeezed back, taken up, or blocked.
A smaller field would make a carefully planned prep season more important. No more win and you’re in off of a 50 pointer. You would need more than one very good performance in the 50 and 100 races to make sure you get in the field. Trainers would have to run their potential Derby horses more often and that is something we would all love to see. If the horses ran more often it would also improve the quality of the prep races.
Based on the current points system, the following six horses would not have made a field of 14 horses in the 2012 Derby with their finish noted in parentheses: Liaison (6th), Rousing Sermon (8th), Optimizer (11th), Done Talking (14th), Sabercat (15th), and Trinniberg (17th). Would anyone besides the connections really have cared if those horses were not in the race?
To me it doesn’t matter whether horses qualify for the Derby field based on points or graded stakes earnings. What should be paramount is that horses get into the race because they won quality races against quality fields. The way to accomplish this is to take away the auxiliary gate and reduce the Kentucky Derby field from 20 to 14 horses.