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Zipse At The Track

Kentucky Derby Points & The Chaos Theory

Imagine if you will, juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby stalking the early lead, pouncing to the front on the far turn, and rolling home to a multiple length score in the 138th running of the Preakness Stakes. Jubilant rider, Rosie Napravnik, blows kisses to an adoring crowd as the pair gets draped in daisies painted to look like black-eyed susans. Nothing but rainbows and crab cakes, right?
Churchill Downs Incorporated should hope so. Their creation of the Kentucky Derby points system is a new improved way to identify the 20 horses best equipped to win America’s most famous race. Or is it? I wonder what Dr. Ian Malcolm, of Jurassic Park fame, would say about all this.
Dr. Malcolm’s Chaos Theory has two basic premises. First, that complex systems like weather have an underlying order. For example, pool balls. You hit a pool ball, and it starts to carom off the sides of the table. In theory, that's a fairly simple system, almost a Newtonian system. Since you can know the force imparted to the ball, and the mass of the ball, and you can calculate the angles at which it will strike the walls, you could predict the behavior of the ball far into the future, as it keeps bouncing from side to side. You could predict where it will end up three hours from now, in theory. What does all this have to do with Shanghai Bobby and the Kentucky Derby?

With this first half of Malcolm’s Chaos Theory in mind, the carefully planned spreadsheet of point values, that CDI has created to determine the best 20 horses, works perfectly. In the above scenario of Shanghai Bobby proving to be a heroic winner of the Triple Crown’s Middle Jewel at Pimlico, we can assume that he either had also won the Kentucky Derby, or at the very least, had a good run at it under the famed twin spires of Churchill Downs. The crowd in Baltimore, race fans everywhere, and CDI could not be happier to see Rosie grinning ear-to-ear in the Preakness winner’s circle, because in large part, he was given his chance two weeks earlier in Louisville. And of course, he was afforded that chance after qualifying for the run for the roses by gaining the points necessary to do so.

But wait a minute, there is a second main premise to that Chaos Theory of Malcolm. The fictional chaotician also realized that the reverse of the first premise is an earthly reality. In other words, that simple systems can produce complex behavior. Back to that pool ball example, it turns out you can't predict more than a few seconds into the future. This is true because almost immediately very small effects - imperfections in the surface of the ball, tiny indentations in the wood of the table - start to make a difference. And it doesn't take long before they overpower your careful calculations. So it turns out that this simple system of a pool ball on a table has unpredictable behavior.

Can you imagine this second half of the Chaos Theory applied to the uncertainty and fragile nature of the best laid plans for getting a thoroughbred racehorse not only to the big race feeling good, but having qualified under the new points system? The possibilities have chaos theorists everywhere licking their chops as they observe the prep schedule to the 2013 Kentucky Derby.

Consider if you will, that original scenario of Shanghai Bobby winning the Preakness in breathtaking fashion, but this time, with just a smidge of Chaos Theory thrown in, taking place after the champion had been denied entry into the Kentucky Derby because he did not have enough points to qualify under the new system. 

CDI would now be known as Chaos Downs Incorporated.

And before you send the guys in the white coats after me and good old Dr. Malcolm with butterfly nets, consider that Chaos is already in motion. Shanghai Bobby, the undefeated two-year-old champion, likely does not have enough points currently to make the cut. And with only one more race planned for him before the Derby, his connections know that the result of the Florida Derby becomes vitally important. What if there is a bad break, or a traffic problem, or what if he finishes fourth, beaten only a half-length?

Also, not lost on the Kentucky Derby chaos theorists is Itsmyluckyday. The best sophomore in the nation so far in 2013, is in much the same boat as Shanghai Bobby, and even more so. With the point system so slanted towards the final series of races, his impressive wins in the Gulfstream Park Derby and Holy Bull mean next to nothing as far as Kentucky Derby qualification. The fact that these two will face off in the Florida Derby, both, dare I say, desperate for qualifying points, makes that race either very interesting, or pure chaos bait.

A Preakness winning, juvenile champion not having qualified for the Kentucky Derby? Now that would be chaos! 



***A special thanks to author, Michael Crichton and Dr. Ian Malcolm for their assistance in the construction of today's blog***


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Older Comments about Kentucky Derby Points & The Chaos Theory...

While the new system may not be the perfect way of determining who gets in, I will say that with proper planning a owner and trainer can form a stradegy that gains points early, as a two year old , and if sucessful as a two year old, pick a couple of races that can rest a early point earner prior to the derby. The last few 50 point races and all of the 100 point races are going to be big fields and very tough on the horses looking to get in.
I think the interesting spin that this puts on the equation is that now the trainers who want to swoop in and win one of the big prep races, then on to the triple crown and retire with 7 races under their belt are over. Talented racers who are willing to contest 3 of 4 races prior to the triple crown may now earn their due. No more one hit wonders, but talented racers who are willing to compete against the best anytime, any placxe, anywhere. That is the right path to the next triple crown.
Good points about the points system, charlip
Also looking forward to the chaos that will occur when Juvenile Champ is given a 3 month break, comes back to win a minor stakes and then gets disqualified when trouncing the Santa Anita Derby field, so he doesn't go to Kentucky. Not good enough.
The points system is badly flawed. People were upset that Grade earnings from juvenile races were being counted equally against grade races from the 3 year old season. So they have totally overreacted and made the 2 year olds races worthless. Any folol knows that a horse good enough to run 3rd in the Breeders Cup Juvenile (a CHAMPIONSHIP race) has done more to prove his superiority than the horse who wins a Grade 3 or even a Grade 2 the next year. The true champions are the ones that show top form at 2 and carry it on at 3. The new rules will force owners to save their best horses from heavy juvenile campaigns, thus denigrating races like the Champagne, the CashCall and slapping the Breeders Cup Juvenile in the face. I think they're still mad at Arazi for flushing all their silly wagers in the 1992 Derby. Horse racing doesn't need a playoff!
I tweeted just today that Shanghai Bobby may very well be the last horse in, after a 4th place FL Derby finish, with 34 points (10 from 4th in Derby). If he finishes worse than 4th there, should he get in? I'd argue no.
Animal Kingdom would have had 50 points under the new system--so he should have made the field. Here is an article showing the number of points for the Kentucky Derby winners in recent years. It is at the bottom of the page.
Yes, Animal Kingdom would have qualified with his win in the Spiral.
what if they had the point system in 2011...would ANIMAL K be in the derby/no/why
Darlene, I disagree with shortening the field. i think 20 is perfect, it allows for the best 3 yr olds to enter. Since it is closed to older horses this helps ensure elite competition.
I agree Zipse. It is going to be even more chaotic when horses like Shanghai Bobby and Itsmyluckyday miss their Kentucky Derby post because a one win maiden finishes second in the Blue Grass, Wood Memorial, Florida Derby, Arkansas Derby, or Santa Anita Derby?
Whose fault is it if SB only has one more race planned for him? Jeeeeeez! If these horses can't make it to the starting gate and garner 40 points, they don't deserve to get in the race. Heck, in the 100 pointer races, you can come in second and get 40 points! Duh!!! Sorry, no cigar! Ridiculous that connections can't condition and plan races to get their star qualified.
4th in Fla Derby Run another prep 2 preps is not law nor mandantory Can't get enough points to be in top 20 (TWENTY) you don't belong there Now I just wish CDI would cut field down to one gate and make race more elite and tougher to get into
I think some have completely missed the point of this article. It is neither pro-points system, nor is it against it. It also does not address my feelings on the light schedule currently in vogue many trainers use to get to the Derby ... rather it is just an illustration of how one little thing going the wrong way could create a chaotic result ... such as a juvenile champion good enough to win the Preakness being excluded from the Kentucky Derby field. I am not saying Shanghai Bobby will be left out, nor I am saying that he will win the Preakness, but the possibility of something like that happening is far from unthinkable, as I hope I illustrated.
  • darlene · I don't feel that 2 yr old champ not making race is chaotic Just would show not good enough The Derby is for top 3 yr olds not top 2 yr olds · 2177 days ago
  • zatt · Well, in the example above ... it would seem an easy Preakness winner is plenty good enough to qualify for the 20-horse Derby field. · 2177 days ago
One thing going wrong is not that uncommon in racing, remember AP Indy's injury the day before the Derby. Everything has to go right for a horse to make the Derby and run well. As for Shanghai Bobby making the Derby field I think it is more a factor of Todd Pletcher not adjusting to the new system. If you wait until the last group of races for the points to make the field you are setting yourself up for anything that could possibly go wrong and in racing a lot of things can go wrong.
I don't know that the BCJ needs 50 points for the win really. SB has 24 points; last year Hansen would have had 14 points after his second place finish in the Holy Bull. He then went on to the Gotham and Bluegrass, garnering a total of (what would have been) 104 points under the new system. SB's connections need to add a race to his schedule.
Zipse was figuring this out whilst in a boring meeting. CDI should have given BC Juvenile 50 points for win. Behavioral economists would call this unintended consequence...
Like the song said, "Shake it up, baby!" I actually think the points system will attract more qualified horses, for the reason that late developing horses, who by the way are more likely to go the Classic distances, have a chance to show up late and pick up a 50 or 100 pointer race. Whenever there is change there are always going to be naysayers, those who don't like to change the status quo....whether we like it or not, the points system is a fact! The precocious early developers don't seem to have much of a history at stepping up to the TC challenge, anyway. Let's get some horses in the starting gate who have a shot at bringing home a Triple Crown!

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Meet Brian Zipse

Brian has been a passionate fan of horse racing his entire life. Taken to the races at a very young age, he has been lucky enough to see all the greats in person from Secretariat, Forego, and Ruffian through Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, American Pharoah and Justify. Before coming to the Nation, Brian displayed his love for the sport through the development of his horse racing website, which quickly became one of the most popular blogs in the game. His new racing partnership venture, Derby Day Racing, invites more fans to experience the thrill of racehorse ownership.

The Editor of Horse Racing Nation from 2010-2017, Brian authored a daily column as Zipse at the Track, created the popular racing show, HorseCenter and added his editorial flare to the overall content of the website. Now a Senior Writer for HRN, Brian continues to contribute his thoughts on racing, as well as hosting HorseCenter. A big supporter of thoroughbred aftercare, he serves as the President of The Exceller Fund.

Brian's work has also been published on several leading industry sites. He has consulted for leading contest site Derby Wars, is both a Hall of Fame and NTRA poll voter, and is a Vox Populi committee member. 

A horse owner and graduate of DePaul University, Brian lives just outside of Louisville with his wife Candice and daughter Kendra.

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