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Breeders' Cup 2017

20 in the Gate Makes the Kentucky Derby Great

Kentucky Derby starting gate
Horse racing is a sport, in which opinions matter more than most. It's one of the few athletic endeavors in which wagering is widespread and legal, an outcome either backing said opinion or refuting it happens in a timely manner - 25 minutes in preparation - and usually it takes less than two minutes to determine whose bets/opinions are right. Sure, you and I might disagree about who will win the NCAA Division I basketball tournament whilst filling out a bracket in an office pool with a few bucks, but it's certainly not legal and it takes more than three weeks to decide a champion/winner. (Unless you took Valparasio to win it all…)

With the immediacy and intimacy of bettors hanging at the track, OTB or on social media, there's bound to be disagreements with friends and adversaries alike. This brings me to challenge my friend - both in person and online - in his assurance that the Kentucky Derby would be a better race if the gate were limited to 14 entries. I speak of the wise and well-versed Matt Shifman, New York State of Racing blogger. Matt is definitely a savvy bettor and student of the game, I just don't agree with him on this point in Kentucky Derby Field with Just 14?

I do agree in spirit with Matt's argument that limiting the field would change the way horses are managed and raced leading up to the Derby. Regardless of the number of entrants, every owner, trainer and jock wants their chance at Kentucky Derby glory, so limiting the field would raise the level of competition and dare I say, the number of races a two- and three-year-old might run, if it would take more points, earnings, whatever to get into the Churchill gate.

Without reducing the Derby field, competition could be increased in another way - by making it more difficult to earn the necessary entry points. Instead of point distributions of 50-20-10-5 and 100-40-20-10 in the last two legs of Churchill's point gathering system, simply provide a sliding, but not overwhelming lopsided scale of points by graded stakes, starting with Breeders' Cup Juvenile. A scale like the following would definitely make it more interesting.

Grade III: 10-5-3-1
Grade II: 20-10-5-2
Grade I: 40-20-10-5

This would still place a heavier, but not as distant weight, on the final Derby prep races. A Grade I win is still the greatest point-getter, but a more constant and consistent runner could score just as well winning a Grade III and then finishing second in a Grade II and Grade I. Shouldn't horses that actually run, be granted just as much weight in the entry process as the one spectacular Grade I winning splash? Twenty horses, many who run more than twice year, would provide a more experienced and possibly a more well-mannered field.

While most Thoroughbred horse racing fans wish for a Triple Crown, Churchill Downs is in no one way obligated to make such an endeavor easier by the limiting the field to a just-right size. And if I can take Matt's point one step further, a field of risen cream of 14 may have not produced the result fans may have desired with smaller fields. I've seen horses find trouble in five-horse fields going 1 1/2 miles and 14 is certainly a full enough field to wreak havoc.

If safety is a concern, I may argue in return that attendance be limited to less than 50,000 on Derby Day and no one allowed within 500 feet of the starting gate with a beer in hand. Also, let's add a Wimbledon judge and chair with the prerequisite, "Quiet please," while the horses load and the gate opens.

Seriously, I find each leg of the Triple Crown puts a Thoroughbred to a different test. The Preakness tests a horse's ability to return to the races two weeks after a peak performance - unheard of in this day and age. The Belmont simply puts the speed bias breeding to the ultimate challenge. Twelve furlongs in some way must be breed into the creature, so even if the Derby were "easier" with six less horses, there's no guarantee a Triple Crown is assured with a horse running 1 1/2 miles following two peak efforts. Let's also consider the 19 horses who won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and then faltered at Big Sandy. Shall we also shorten the Belmont distance to accommodate a possible Triple Crown winner?

Besides the Kentucky Derby is an American spectacle, and as such, is a race that is part caravel, part demolition derby and part parade where true beauty meets the beast. This comes from well-bred equines and blue-blood money and partnerships cobbled together with childhood friends who bargain-basement shop at state-bred sales. This is a place for a champion to be crowned from nowhere through the obstacles on the track, whether they occur during a morning workout or while negotiating at least 19 other potential land mines on race day.

In a meritocracy, those that deserve a chance are supposed to get it. There are many gatekeepers at every level of our society allowing those who may or may not deserve power, wealth or awards into places where it is given. In the Thoroughbred world, Churchill Downs has determined its merit system for the equine athletes, and we may even argue its validity, but that's not really the point. On the other hand, let's consider that more than 27,000 foals were born in 2010 and only 20 of them will start in the Kentucky Derby - that's less than one tenth of one percent. Does't such a percentage represent the best of the best?  

Given what I know, what I've seen and how I feel, my belief is that 20 Thoroughbreds charging into that first straightway with their jocks looking for that just right spot to complete a race distance none of their charges have competed at  - that's exciting enough to watch and wager on. It's also worth some foolish entries that sometimes don't turn out to be so foolish and the dangers horse and human have to overcome to win. If it was easy, it really wouldn't be worth it.

So with a healthy amount of respect for my friend, Matt, 20 Kentucky Derby entrants are all right with me.


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Older Comments about 20 in the Gate Makes the Kentucky Derby Great...

Well Said Mike in SB.
It is difficult to compare field size in the European Classics to American races. European tracks are much bigger with gradual sweeping turns, not ovals with sharp turns like in the United States. If Churchill Downs had a track like Epsom or Longchamp then the field size wouldn't matter. And in addition 20 horse fields for the Derby are a relatively modern condition, many of the great Derbys of the past were run with smaller fields, only one Triple Crown winner faced 19 other horses. The Derby would still be the greatest race in the United States with a 14 horse field.
I've gone back and forth so much on this issue, I'm dizzy ... did anyone say compromise and go 17?
A smaller field size would diminish the stature of the Kentucky Derby. Here are the maximum field sizes for other prestigious races around the world: Melbourne Cup: 24, Arc: 20, Epsom: 20. Field size is part of the challenge.
I thought final time depends on how fast you run the distance duh
If you are looking for a great betting race and a race with a good chance of a big longshot winning then the 20 horse field is best. If you want a more fair race where something like a bad post position will not ruin a horses chances and the best horse is more likely to win, then a 14 horse field is better. Personally I think the 20 horse field has made the Derby less relevant in determining the best 3 year olds and think a 14 horse field would make a better horse race if not a better betting race.
Final time is a function of pace.....Always has been
old D Wayne entered so many that should never have been on the UNDERCARD let alone the big dance.
to everybody who is interested in handicapping? calculating the finishing time of the any races depending on the fitness of the horses which will show up in their workouts, is very easy, take an average last 3 run and find out their finished time and calculate the time taken in 1st furlong and first 1/4. 2nd 1/4, 6 furlong and mile, then 1-1/16 miles , rest is your commonsense?
I think in the past the problem with the 20 horses was that 6 had no legitimate reason for being in the race, other then graded earnings. Therefore, horses like Trinniburg (who is a very nice horse) were entered in a race they had no business being in because of some earnings he got from the Hopeful and Swale stakes. I think the new points system with eliminate most of the riff-raff and even more of the 20 entrants will be deserving of a spot in the starting gate.
I like the idea of making it harder to get points. Also, good point about the 1/10 of 1%! In addition to making it harder to get points what if post positions were picked based on the horses rank? The horse with the most points gets to pick first and so on...
I couldn't agree more.
Plus if they only had 14 starters a lot of great horses wouldn't of made the field.

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