The Breeders’ Cup Forum: Churchill Downs President Kevin Flanery
Churchill Downs caught many of us by surprise last week with the announcement that it was changing Kentucky Derby eligibility requirements, effective with the 2013 Derby, from money won in graded stakes throughout the world to a point system incorporating 36 specific races that comprise the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
The Road to the Kentucky Derby has four segments: a Prep Season that includes 19 races of a mile or more during a horse’s 2-year-old season and early in its 3-year-old campaign (10 points for a win, points for top four); eight races in the first leg of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series (50 points for a win, points for top four); seven races in the second leg of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series (100 points for a win, points for top four); and two wild card races (20 points for a win, points for top four).
Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs racetrack, talked with the Paulick Report about the process of developing the Road to the Kentucky Derby and what he hopes will be gained with this new qualifying system.
When did this process begin and what was the reason to explore the idea of changing Kentucky Derby qualifying?
As we always have said, every year right after the Kentucky Derby we talk about how the Derby season went, how the process of eligibility worked for those in the race and those who didn’t make the race. The key issue last year, for example, was changing the rule to add an also-eligible list to the Derby.
Around August we started to earnestly look to see if there was an alternative qualifying system that made sense. We asked ourselves, when you look at purses with the addition of casino money, when you look at the types of races making horses eligible, was there a better way to do it – both with a short-term and long-term view – to utilize the Derby to increase awareness of racing in general and bring new fans to the sport. It’s an ongoing conservation we have.
Who participated from your management team at Churchill?
I was very involved. Darren Rogers, John Asher (from Churchill Downs media relations), and Casey Ramage (marketing) also were very involved, as was the racing office with Ben Huffman and his group. That was the core team. But we had voices from all over the track and company feeding information and ideas.
Were outside consultants involved, or did NBC Sports or a media company like USA Today play a role?
Yes, after we came to a conclusion that we were going to change, we did reach out to different entities. For example we talked to NASCAR about their point system and some of the things they learned. We talked to people in golf, from the Fed Ex cup to the Ryder Cup. We talked to our media partners as well to get their initial impressions of our system. The one thing we learned from other sporting entities was try and make it as simple and digestible as possible to give the fans something to rally around.
Is there a formal partnership with USA Today Sports Media Group on this? You mentioned in the press conference USA Today will be publishing Road to the Kentucky Derby standings before and after weekend races.
We’re excited what USA Today is doing. They are combining and growing the online platform as well as the hard copy version of their publication, and they have some interesting growth opportunities for racing in the area of fantasy games. We approached them about how to make it all go together, across all their distribution channels. We still have some things to work out.
Was there a belief by the committee that early-season races for 2-year-olds going a short distance of ground had too much influence in the Graded stakes earnings list?
One of the things we did was look at what horsemen were saying about the Derby and the path to the Derby in previous years. Two things that resonated from the beginning were the issue of 2-year-old races early in the season and at distances that didn’t reflect a horse’s ability to go a mile and a quarter in the Kentucky Derby. The third thing, a lot of people talked about horses getting eligible too early, and not having to prove themselves as the big day approached. That definitely was something we looked at with fans and horsemen in mind.
Did you start out with other assumptions?
We did have a mantra, and that was: If we are going to change, we have to create a compelling story that engages new fans to the sport. That was the core. 1A to that core was to respect the tradition and integrity of the race. We wanted to make sure we looked at traditional paths to the Derby, so we end up with the best horses possible in the field. That was really the mantra from the beginning.
Do see why some people say giving only 10 points to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner is a slap in the face to the Breeders’ Cup?
When we looked at the system we tried to say: What does the path look like as we approach the Derby. Again we are trying to do something that builds the excitement so that the best horses in the best shape are there on Derby Day. That entailed some tough decisions. We looked at 185 races. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is a fantastic race and Breeders’ Cup is a fantastic partner for Churchill Downs. It’s the championship race for 2-year-olds. Our system is designed to make sure we have the best 3-year-olds on the first Saturday in May
Do you have concerns that not including the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne looks to some people like it has more to do with a feud between Arlington (a Churchill Downs Inc. racetrack) and Hawthorne than with its legitimacy as a major prep race?
Our system all along, if you look at where we landed, was based on trying to tell a compelling story. There is a logical sequence of races on the road to the Kentucky Derby and we want to build momentum around races that get closer to the actual event. You have to make some tough choices along the way. We respect the past but we are creating a new path. We recognize we had to have geographic diversity. There is a limited number of races, and we needed to spread those races around the country. Many didn’t make cut because they were in the wrong position on the calendar, went up against other super races, were too short of a distance, or other factors. It really was about the future path on that aspect.
Some people, including three-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert, said: This is okay, but if you really want to make it better, reduce the number of starters from 20. Will that ever happen?
We focused very much on the road to the Kentucky Derby. I’m very pleased with how it has shaped up. If you look at the last 30-40 years, we’ve had 12 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners, and I believe on two other occasions we’ve had a Derby-Belmont winner. The Derby has proven that it’s a tough test, but the best horse at that time wins the Derby.
Were trainers consulted?
There were some off-the-record conversations about the process, but not the particulars. We wanted to make sure that we get the fans engaged and we had the proper momentum when it was announced. Trainer opinions matter: Darren Rogers, John Asher, and others looked at what had been suggested by the industry and those suggestions were taken into consideration.
We think we have the right plan for now but it also has flexibility built into it. I could see this being a 40-race series, so we have four spots where people could come in with innovative ideas.