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A New York State of Racing

A Kentucky Derby Field with Just 14 Horses?

Kentucky Derby starting gate
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. 


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Older Comments about A Kentucky Derby Field with Just 14 Horses?...

I know this is said almost every year, but this year there does seem to be many quality horses.
"He doesn't necessarily have to win Saturday to go to the (Kentucky) Derby, but he has to run the right kind of race. If he doesn't, we won't go. I want the horse to take me there." McGaughey/ If more owner trainers let the horse guide them, they wouldn't have to set a 20 horse limit, because about half of them in a 20 horse field aren't ready or are strictly sprinters that clog up the field at some point and foul it up for others when they rapidly fall back.
I want to thank everyone for the great comments and discussion. I really do believe that the Derby field should be 14!
Absolutely. The BC has only 14 horse races, as do the other TC races. The 20 horse field doesn't allow a real horse race to take place, with so many horses taken out of contention by the big field.
It is without any doubt The Kentucky Derby Fiekl is too large; yet, as with other sports, we could go 2 Race Format three weeks prior, and the top 14 Race May4th
As long as money and influence trade hands, there will be also rans in the field
The Kentucky Derby should be the best of the best. Horses should have to win several races against other quality horses to have the opportunity to make it to the big dance. Maybe horses should have to earn their way into each leg of a Derby prep race? For example: The horses who make the Florida Derby have to have won or placed in a lower level Derby prep. Then the top two from each of the seven 100 point races make it to the Derby.
With these huge fields, I have, quite frankly, been ready to see a horrible accident as that thunderous mass runs by the stands the first time. So many colts get pinched back (with it being all over for them early) right at the start never to recover. Lookin at Lucky is one of many that readily comes to mind.......Give the field some room. and I agree and have always said, this race is 50% talent and 50% luck to negotiate to the wire in front.
I could live with 16, but anymore than that is too problematic. I watch the Derby every year but I'm not dumb enough to bet on that big a field. The winning horse is more likely to be just plain lucky, unless he/she is a superhorse, not the best in the field.
I agree with Mary Z. Don't mess with The Derby. Would 12 horses at four year olds be a solution to all that is wrong with a coveted race that has been an American Tradition for well over a century??!! All of the horses that make the gate are contenders and they got there by winning Graded Stakes against EACH OTHER. It is the single race of the year where the "common folk" tune in to see this sport because of this tradition. Mess with it and it falls.
i like the 20 horse race. more exciting
travel_vic's absolute comments beginning to fall apart, as par usual
just because a three year old wins some extended sprint at graded stakes does NOT mean it has the maturity distance and weight carrying potential of 10 furlong the first week in May of its three year old season. THIS SEASON two, I'll bet there will not be more than 6 real contenders.
Cocoa2. Thanks for info. Didn't know that.
1896 was also the year the first roses were draped over the winner
One final point, many times when the Derby was run later in May had more to do with the opening of the meet at Churchill Downs. This came from the Derby media Guide and also was stated in Matt Winn's autobiography Down the Stretch.
Just for the record, the Derby prior to 1931 was run 13 or 15 times on the first Saturday in May ( I included Paul Jones and Regret's Derby because of possible leap year issue since they ran May 8th respectively). There was also one time in 1901 when His Eminence won and the race was held on April 29th. Also it should be noted that the Derby was run initially at 1 1/2 miles to emulate the Ascot Derby. The present distance came about in 1896 I believe. All of this information came from the Derby Media Guide.
I say don't mess with The Derby. If there's a lack of class, meaning the owners, not just the horses, maybe a street sweeper to clear the junk would help.
buds, I agree with you. When talking about quality that hasn't changed either. Since 1950 the median time for he KD is 2:02.0, and the percentage of injuries is close to the same as back in the 60, and 70s.
The field size will not change; I hear a lot of people talking about quality of horses. The quality has nothing to do with it, it’s all about money. This is why some races have more points than others. I bet if it benefited Churchill downs, we would see the Illinois Derby be worth a few points. It’s not a coincidence that the wild card races are at the tracks that they are. Its all about money. If sports were about quality, we would have an NFL with only 20 teams cuz we only have 20 good quarter backs! I’m still surprised that horses are not filled with ads like NASCAR as they run around the track! (UPS woulda been all over Big Brown)LOL

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Meet Matt Shifman

Matt Shifman has been on the Horse Racing Nation staff since 2011 and currently serves as Assistant Editor. Matt covers Aqueduct, Belmont Park, Monmouth Park, and Saratoga in his two HRN blogs, Racing at the Jersey Shore and New York State of Racing.

Since 2012, Matt has been a voter in the NTRA weekly polls for the Top Thoroughbred and Top Three-Year-Old.

Recently, Matt helped launch Derby Day Racing, a new 2-year-old racing partnership, that just purchased a promising Lookin At Lucky filly named Sooner Schooner.

You may also know Matt by his Twitter, Facebook, and HRN screen nameAndyScoggin.

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