For the first time since 1986 Churchill Downs has elected to overhaul the Kentucky Derby qualification system in favor of a 4-tiered points system. With this historic change the modified parameters have been met with speculation, applause, disparity and debate. Dubbed as the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” it isn’t but seven days before this program officially begins. So, before we embark upon the journey let’s rewind for my review.
We begin with the clear advantages that the new points system brings to finding the best 20 horses. Let’s not assume that this momentous decision will eliminate the best 3-yr-olds in the world from qualifying for the 139th Kentucky Derby fore there is now more potential to separate the pretenders from the contenders. So in comparison to the many gripes this is still one of the most optimistic opinions that may get lost in the shuffle.
Under the previous qualification method Graded Stakes Earnings were used to determine which 20 horses would find a place in the starting gate. The problem that it caused is that we saw many horses wind up there but without any business of being there in the first place. There still may be times when an entries merit will be questioned in the new points system but when contrasted with the old the census is likely to drop considerably.
No Favors for Speedsters
One element that caused a lot of frustration was when Sprinters took advantage of their success and graded purse earnings. It’s not a knock against the connections that went for their dreams, who wouldn’t given the opportunity? Former Kentucky Derby Preps that were classified as Sprints like the G3 Swale are no longer included in the 36 race series. In fact under the new format every race that makes up both the “Kentucky Derby Prep Season” and the “Kentucky Derby Championship Series” are run at least 1 Mile. So what that means is that the temptation to use the Kentucky Derby as a horse’s first true test over a distance of 1 Mile has now been taken off the table and sprinters will be forced to graduate in distance much sooner if they want to run for the roses.
Another unreasonable entry was the 2-yr-old winner of an overvalued graded stakes. It’s a very smart decision by a track to increase the purse money in some of the meets marquee races. Bumping the purses leads to a better field, increased coverage, more attendance, more wagering and definitely more exposure.
The problem that it created for the Kentucky Derby under the old system however is that it gave horses a “Win and You’re In” opportunity at too young an age. What tends to be unfair here is that some horses peak very early in their careers but that doesn’t answer why it should qualify them for the Kentucky Derby, a Grade 1 race for 3-yr-olds. Again, I can’t blame the connections of an overvalued stakes winner for rolling the dice and entering their horse into the field but at least now a post position has to be earned over a string of races throughout the 2-yr-old and 3-yr-old campaigns.
Love for the Ladies
At first glance it seems like the fillies would be at a major disadvantage because there are zero restricted races for fillies included on the 36 race series. Since graded stakes earnings don’t count for anything then where can the fillies race to qualify? Answer is: All 36 races. That’s correct none of the races are limited only to the boys so a Filly can enter anywhere her connections choose. What’s ironic about this is that in the history of the Kentucky Derby only 3 fillies have ever won the roses but in all 3 occurrences each of these ladies raced against the boys before the first Saturday in May.
These are the big takeaways for why the new points system is going to turn out to be better for the Kentucky Derby in the long run. But while I am a big fan of these changes there a couple of things that I would like to see modified down the line.
The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile
Yes, I know that only 1 winner of the Juvenile has ever come back to win the Kentucky Derby, Street Sense 2007, but this race is anything but an overvalued graded stakes race. In fact, it’s actually the 2-yr-old championship race so I believe it deserves an exception to the points system delegated to races in the 2-yr-old season. Using last year as an example we saw four legitimate derby contenders finish in the top 4 (Hansen, Creative Cause, Union Rags, Dullahan) so we shouldn’t ignore the prestige that they earned. As it stands right now, I feel that downgrading those performances to a points total of 10-4-2-1 is little naive.
Instead, I would like to see Churchill Downs alter the points in this race to mirror the points awarded to Graded Stakes races in the first leg of the Championship Series (50-20-10-5). I give a lot of credit to how many trainers were able to send horses out in both premiere races last season and I would like to continue to see that. More importantly I can’t wait for the next Street Sense. But if the points aren’t altered it could lead to more trainers opting to pass on the Juvenile and instead focus on the 3-yr-old season. If so, that would be a compromise that Churchill Downs may want to avoid.
Key Races that are Lost
There are a couple of races that have lost their place at the table of Kentucky Derby Preps but the one that stands out the most is the Illinois Derby. Because I reside in Chicago it is probably why I will miss this one more than some of the others. I know that Hawthorne Racecourse and Churchill Downs don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things these days and that the race hasn’t produced many winners that went on to become solid Derby Contenders. But at the end of the day the Illinois Derby still earned its place in recent years.
In 2002 War Emblem became the first and only winner of the Illinois Derby to move on and score the Kentucky Derby. It’s obvious that the race has lost its edge compared to the other Major Derby preps but leaving it out all together is a bit confusing. In the very least I still think that Hawthorne should be given the option to move the date of the race further back on the live meet calendar so that it could as a minimum be listed as race worth 50 points to the winner. Hopefully things will get worked out and Chicago will be back on the road to the Kentucky Derby.
Overall, the initiative behind the new is system is pretty solid. The focus on races that carry distance and those that award horses more points for valiant efforts in races closer to the Kentucky Derby is a great qualifying foundation. The added bonus features of eliminating bogus preps and sprinters from squeaking into the starting gate will also round out the field to a more complete cast of contenders.
Finally, the likelihood that NBC Sports will be playing a prominent role in the Derby Prep coverage throughout the season will allow them to highlight a much easier qualification system for viewers to follow. In turn this should generate more buzz, attention, curiosity and fans. Though it will take some time for everyone to get acquainted to the new system, in my opinion it will only be a matter of time before the majority overwhelmingly favors the change.
With the show about to begin, all that’s left to say is: Riders Up. Good luck to all 2013 Derby Hopefuls, we look forward to covering you along the way.