Three-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert isn’t pleased. On the flipside, trainer Larry Jones-- who has finished runner-up twice in the Derby with Hard Spun and the ill-fated Eight Belles-- likes the forward thinking.
For the first time since 1986, Churchill Downs officials have elected to overhaul the Kentucky Derby by ditching the graded-stakes earnings as the qualification system in favor of a sliding scale of points for the top four finishers.
“At least somebody is trying to use their head a little bit,” Jones observed. “I like it. It definitely is a move forward. I could not understand how horses who made their earnings early as 2-year-olds going six furlongs, why they should be considered Derby horses.”
Officially branded as the “Road to the Kentucky Derby,” the new point system will feature 36 stakes races overall and include 17 marquee events for three-year old thoroughbreds that comprise a compact 10-week run up to the first Saturday in May. Now known as the "Kentucky Derby Championship Series," the change will be in effect for the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 4.
After commissioning a poll of more than 300 sports fans nationwide that showed 83 percent did not understand how a thoroughbred qualified to compete in the $2 million Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs officials decided to implement a change in the system.
“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.”
Proponents of the change say it will push trainers to place their horses into races that are truly consequential and packed with top-rated competition.
The new Road to the Kentucky Derby series will be divided into two phases, each offering different points to the top four 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.
Under the new way of ranking three-year olds, the top 20 point earners are guaranteed a spot in the Derby starting gate. Earnings in non-restricted stakes will serve as a tie-breaker. 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.
Grades Don’t Count
Baffert’s beef targets Grade-1 races. Considered the best level of racing in the world, Baffert believes those races should carry more weight. Under Churchill’s new system, the graded status of a race doesn't matter as long as it has proven historically important to Derby success.
“Grade-1s are hard to win,” Baffert noted emphatically. “Liaison wouldn’t have been able to run in last year’s Derby under the new deal. I think they’re hurting owners. There should be a minimum purse to be a qualifying race. I’m also concerned that tracks might whack a stakes purse once its Derby points were set.”
How about fillies running in the Derby? If a filly wants to compete she can, but she will 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 past 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 series. Additionally, qualifying for the 2013 Kentucky Oaks will fall under the same system.
With scrapping the previous system of graded stakes earnings, sprinters get marginalized. Former Derby preps that were classified as sprints such as the Grade-3 Swale have been cut from the new 36 race series. Sprinters will be forced to stretch out distances in their races much sooner if they want a post position on May 4.
Other losers will be horses that peak very early in their careers. With the former system, horses could qualify in “Win and You’re In” races at prominent 2-year old stakes races. The new system dictates that entry into the Derby field of 20 must be earned over a string of races throughout their two-year old and three-year old campaigns that is more heavily weighted toward three-year old performances.
A couple of marquee races have lost a lot of their luster. This year the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile will offer qualifying points of just 10-4-2-1, the lowest of the Derby prep levels. Granted only one two-year old champ has gone on to capture the roses, Street Sense in 2007, but in 2012 the top four finishers (Hansen, Union Rags, Creative Cause and Dullahan) were all legitimate Derby contenders. Will the trainers skip the BC Juvenile to target three-year old races that serve up more qualifying points? Stay tuned.
The biggest losers are the folks that host the $500,000 Illinois Derby. They had a conniption when the formerly prominent Derby prep was axed from the 2013 qualifying races.
“We were willing to move (from the first Saturday in April) to March to be part of it,” said Tim Carey, Hawthorne Race Course president. “Three days later we got a letter from Churchill track President Kevin Flanery saying ‘No, we can't do it.’”
Churchill Downs will beef up distribution channels in an attempt to grow fan interest. An official marketing partner, the USA Today Sports Media Group will present updated point standings and coverage of series races regularly online and in print editions which have a nationwide daily circulation of more than 1.8 million.
In addition, Churchill Downs will trumpet their popular digital platforms such as TwinSpires.com, the country’s premier account-wagering company, and KentuckyDerby.com. The event’s official website attracted 2.9 million unique visitors and more than 23.2 million page views for 2012. Its popular social media assets on Facebook and Twitter reached more than 313,000 people, according to Churchill Downs officials.
Churchill’s Flanery said he could “easily envision” that the series would be expanded to 40 races.
“In abandoning the graded-stakes earnings system we (Churchill) will be better able to control the paths that lead to a Kentucky Derby berth” said Flanery. “The graded-stakes earnings system has given tracks incentives to create races that were not ideal in determining which horses should be eligible to run in the Derby.
“We should be making sure we have the proper path to the Derby. It’s all about making sure that on the first Saturday of May we have the best horses, the best competition, the best story, the best event possible for years to come.”
It will take sports fans time to get familiar with the new point system, and surely as time goes by there will be adjustments in the races listed. But I believe it will help fans better understand the sport and could be a better way to get those fans involved earlier in the season. We’ll see.
The “Kentucky Derby Championship Series”
The first leg features mostly races that feed into historically strong regional Derby preps. It 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). These races are worth a 50-20-10-5 point scale.
The second leg spotlights seven marquee Derby preps-- 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). They’re worth 100-40-20-10.
The final leg serves up a pair of “Wild Card” events, the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland and the Cliff’s Edge Derby Trial at Churchill Downs, which offer some hope for horses to increase their point totals with a 20-8-4-2 scale.