In one of the most essential developments in the storied history of
the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs Racetrack will abandon the graded
stakes earnings criteria it has used since 1986 to determine which 20
horses get into the starting gate for the 1 ¼-mile classic on the first
Saturday in May and institute a point system to qualify for America’s
Churchill Downs Incorporated (NASDAQ: CHDN) Chairman & CEO Bob Evans
was to discuss the significant change today (Thursday) at 10 a.m. (all
times Eastern) during the company’s annual meeting of shareholders at
the racetrack’s Triple Crown Room on the fifth floor of the Jockey Club
Suites. A news conference in the same location with track officials was
to follow the meeting’s conclusion at 11 a.m. It will be streamed online
at KentuckyDerby.com and there also will be an interactive Q&A on
the Kentucky Derby Facebook page (Facebook.com/KentuckyDerby) at 12:30
The new point system – officially branded as the “Road to the Kentucky Derby”
– will feature 36 stakes races overall and include 17 marquee events
for 3-year-old Thoroughbreds that comprise a compact, 10-week run up to
the first Saturday in May to be known as the “Kentucky Derby Championship Series.”
The change will be in effect for the 139th running of the $2 million guaranteed Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Grade I) on Saturday, May 4, 2013.
Also, the $1 million Kentucky Oaks, the Derby’s 3-year-old filly
counterpart run on the day before the Derby on Friday, May 3, 2013, will
adopt a similar point system for selecting its maximum of 14 starters.
The “Road to the Kentucky Derby” point system was created to
establish a clear, practical and understandable path to the first leg of
horse racing’s Triple Crown, as opposed to the approximately 185 graded
stakes races worldwide – including 60 open races and another 43 races
restricted to fillies in North America – that counted toward the Derby
selection under the previous eligibility process.
“Our primary driving motive is to create new fans for horse racing,” said CDI Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bob Evans.
“We’re implementing a more fan-friendly, cohesive and simplified system
that should create compelling drama and appeal to a wider customer
base. Fans, as well as the owners and trainers of the horses, will know
exactly which races are included and what races matter the most based on
a sliding scale of points.
“Additionally, the new system, which gives us greater stability,
represents historical relevancy and helps to ensure our longstanding
mission of assembling the finest group of 3-year-olds in the starting
gate for a race at the classic distance of 1 ¼ miles on the first
Saturday in May. We want to maximize the quality of the Derby field and
protect the integrity of the race, while respecting the tradition and
relevance of paths taken to the race by previous Kentucky Derby winners
and prominent starters.”
The new “Road to the Kentucky Derby” series will be divided into two
phases, each offering different points to the Top 4 finishers of each
race over geographically diverse and historically significant paths:
- The “Kentucky Derby Prep Season” includes 19 races
on dirt or synthetic surfaces over distances of at least one mile
that are typically run between late September and late February.
The lone exception is England’s Royal Lodge, an international juvenile
steppingstone that is carded at one mile on turf at Newmarket. These
races traditionally serve as foundation-building races in advance
of the “Kentucky Derby Championship Series.” Points will be awarded
to the Top 4 finishers in each race on a 10-4-2-1 scale.
- The “Kentucky Derby Championship Series” is a
three-part series of 17 marquee races on dirt or synthetic surfaces
over distances of at least one mile that are traditionally run
over a compact, 10-week run up to the first Saturday in May:
- The first leg, which mostly includes races that feed into the major Kentucky Derby launching pads, includes eight events – the Risen Star (Fair Grounds), Fountain of Youth (Gulfstream Park), Gotham (Aqueduct), Tampa Bay Derby (Tampa Bay Downs), San Felipe (Santa Anita), Rebel (Oaklawn Park), Spiral (Turfway Park) and Sunland Derby (Sunland Park) – with a 50-20-10-5 point scale;
- The second leg features seven stakes races – the Florida Derby (Gulfstream Park), UAE Derby (Meydan Racecourse), Louisiana Derby (Fair Grounds), Wood Memorial (Aqueduct), Santa Anita Derby (Santa Anita), Arkansas Derby (Oaklawn Park) and Blue Grass (Keeneland) – that are worth 100-40-20-10; and
- The final leg is two “Wild Card” events, the Lexington (Keeneland) and The Cliff’s Edge Derby Trial (Churchill Downs), which offer some hope for horses to increase their point totals with a 20-8-4-2 scale.
The Top 20 point earners will earn a spot in the Kentucky Derby
starting gate if more than 20 horses enter the race. At least 20 horses
have entered the Derby every year since 2004 and 12 of the last 14
years. Up to 24 horses may enter the race and four horses can be listed
as “also eligible” and would be ranked in order accordingly; they could
draw into the field should any horse(s) be scratched in the days leading
up to the race.
If two or more horses have the same number of points, which can often
be the case whenever a point system is introduced, the tiebreaker to
get into the Kentucky Derby or Kentucky Oaks will be earnings in
non-restricted stakes races, whether they are graded or not.
In the event of a dead-heat in a “Road to the Kentucky Derby” race,
those horses will divide equally the points they would have received
jointly had one beaten the other.
If a filly wants to run in the Kentucky Derby she can, but she’ll
have to earn her way into the field by accumulating points against open
company just like the rest of the colts and geldings. Each of the three
female winners of the Kentucky Derby – Regret (1915), Genuine Risk (1980) and Winning Colors
(1988) – faced males prior to winning “The Run for the Roses.”
Additionally, any points earned by a filly in the “Road to the Kentucky
Derby” series against open company will be credited to her point total
in the “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” series.
Churchill Downs officials will review which races will be included in
the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” series annually. Plans call for the
schedule to be announced each July.
“If someone comes to us with an idea that we think is innovative and
makes the ‘Road to the Kentucky Derby’ better, we’ll certainly be open
to it,” said Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery.
“At this point and time, what we’ve assumed here is that the racetracks
will run the same races under the same conditions around the same dates
as last year. If not, we’ll have to adjust the schedule.”
After commissioning a poll of more than 300 sports fans nationwide
that showed 83% did not understand how a Thoroughbred qualified to
compete in the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs officials decided to move
forward with a change in the system.
"People understand that the Kentucky Derby is the Super Bowl of horse
racing, but they don’t understand what the ‘league’ structure is and
what the series is to get there,” Flanery said. “We think by simplifying
this series with a point system, making it more cohesive and
introducing the ‘Kentucky Derby Championship Series’ in the 10 weeks
that precede the race can spark fan interest and engage the casual fan
earlier. If there’s compelling drama and people have a better
understanding of what it takes to get into the Derby, we think there’s a
good chance they’ll become more interested in our sport.”
Churchill Downs plans to utilize different distribution channels in an attempt to grow fan interest. USA Today, whose parent corporation Gannett also owns Louisville’s Courier-Journal,
is an official marketing partner for the “Road to the Kentucky Derby.”
Updated point standings and coverage of series races will appear
regularly online and in print editions, which have a nationwide daily
circulation of more than 1.8 million.
Churchill Downs also will make the most of its popular digital platforms such as TwinSpires.com,
the country’s premier account-wagering company; KentuckyDerby.com, the
event’s official Web site which had 2.9 million unique visitors and more
than 23.2 million page views for this year’s renewal; and its popular
social media assets on Facebook and Twitter that reach more than 313,000 people.
“We’ve left room for growth and innovation,” Flanery said. “I can
envision this as a 40-race series down the road. We plan to work with
the racetracks that are part of the ‘Road to the Kentucky Derby’ to
promote the series and help build business on days when their races take
place. We see this new point-based series as something the serious
handicapper and the casual sports fan can wrap their arms around – a
clear, cohesive and understandable path to the Derby and one that will
be fun to follow. It’s a powerful marketing initiative that has the
ability to get thousands of new fans to pay attention to our sport in
advance of the Triple Crown. It will take time, but we want to be
proactive and do something.”