Points on Points- A review of the new “Road To The Kentucky Derby” qualifying system

Much has been said, praised, spewed, and pontificated over the recent revamping of the qualification system for the Kentucky Derby.  Deep breaths should be taken by all— in the end the changes will not hinder the best 3-year-olds from entering the gate.

The exercise of looking at past Kentucky Derby winners and applying the new point system to their trail is a waste.  It does not prove they would have been excluded from the Derby seeing as they were pointed to the race based on a different set of rules.  Their path to Kentucky would no doubt be different in 2013 with the new qualification system in place.

There was the expected whining from several trainers who will have to think differently about their game plan to take promising colts to the First Saturday In May.  No longer can you win one of the purse inflated juvenile stakes, such as the Delta Jackpot or CashCall Futurity, and coast to Churchill Downs with an inferior colt or one who turns out to be past his prime come May.  Trainers will also no longer be able to take a brilliant sprinter, who is anything but a router, and throw a wrench in the complexion of the Derby.     

There was also outrage from those affiliated with other racetracks and fans in general who feel the new point system is yet another example of Churchill Downs Inc. attempting to control the sport.  Let’s not forget however, the Kentucky Derby is a Grade 1 race that belongs to Churchill Downs— just as the Florida Derby belongs to Gulfstream Park and Arkansas Derby to Oaklawn— and all of those tracks can set the qualifications for entry as they see fit.  What bothers rival track executives the most (and what they won’t publicly admit) is the new system puts an end to spiking their purses to manipulate the Derby trail.   

Perhaps the most valid complaint is the exclusion of Hawthorne’s Illinois Derby from the new point system.  Although it is difficult to argue the prep race should be a premium 100-point qualifier (only one participant in the race’s 44 year history has won the Kentucky Derby), omitting it from the series altogether suggests that politics between Churchill Downs-owned Arlington Park and rival Hawthorne Racecourse were at play.  The decision no doubt thrusts the Illinois Derby into irrelevancy.

Personally, the most dissapointing casualty is the dampening of importance of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The race is now on equal footing with minor stakes such as the Delta Jackpot, Grey Stakes, and Smarty Jones Stakes.  The Juvenile has taken its lumps (only 1 winner out of 27 has won the Derby the following year), but last year’s cast was especially strong with 9 of 13 earning spots in the Derby in 2012.  Seeing as the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile carries tremendous prestige and usually determines the 2-year-old Champion, the winner should earn more points towards the Derby than the winner of the ungraded Smarty Jones Stakes a month-and-a-half later.

Other inclusions and omissions are more curious than preposterous. The lone turf race on the “Road to The Kentucky Derby” schedule is the Royal Lodge Stakes at Newmarket, which seems more like a half-hearted gesture than real attempt to bring prospects from across the pond.  The winner only receives 10 points, which is a far cry from the estimated 40 or so points needed.  If the winning connections really wanted to pursue the Derby, they would have to then ship the horse to run in a dirt or synthetic race in Dubai or North America.  The Churchill committee could have easily fixed this issue by either adding more European races or including the internationally attractive Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf to the series.

Fillies will also have a more difficult journey to the Derby than previous years based on the simple fact no restricted races for fillies are included in the new qualifying format.  On the surface that decision could seem exclusive (although the irony is that it was more exclusive the other way around), but fillies are eligible to enter any of the 36 qualifier races, and the 3 fillies to have won the Kentucky Derby all competed against boys along their trail.     

The overall idea of the point system is a good one.  It dulls the importance of early and false preps, puts an emphasis on races at a mile and longer, and awards horses for good recent performance.  It will also make the 36 chosen races, especially the “Championship Series”, full and ultra-competitive. The overarching idea of mimicking Nascar and PGA point systems in order to bring more fans to the sport is a bit of stretch.  Perhaps the format will be easier to keep track of, but the sport needs more than a numbers scheme for a reinvention– like uniform drug rules and punishments, more durable horses you can follow throughout a season, and thus more positive national exposure. 

And that’s a separate diatribe meant for another time and place… 

Road to the Kentucky Derby - Infographic
Road to the Kentucky Derby - Infographic