Paulick: ‘Road to the Kentucky Derby’ long overdue

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Goodness gracious. You’d think the folks at Churchill Downs have ruined the horse racing industry’s most famous event, the Kentucky Derby, judging by some of the hand-wringing that’s been going on since a new qualifying points system was announced last week.

I happen to think the Road to the Kentucky Derby is a brilliant, innovative, long-overdue move that eventually will extend the time the general sports fan and sports media pay attention to horse racing. Currently our window lasts about five weeks between the Derby on the first Saturday in May until the Belmont Stakes in early June (and that’s really only when a horse is going for the Triple Crown).


True racing fans, of course, are already thinking about the 2013 Kentucky Derby. We’re looking at 2-year-old maiden races, allowance races and early-season stakes in hopes of finding the next Secretariat, Seattle Slew or Affirmed. But the purpose of the Road to the Kentucky Derby is to engage non-racing fans a little bit earlier than usual without turning horse racing traditions entirely on their head.

Let’s face it, Americans like lists. We like simplicity. We like things that are easy to understand. The Road to the Kentucky Derby provides all three.

My good friend John Scheinman says he won’t be able understand this new points system “without carrying around a chart of eligible prep races.”

Baloney.

The entire qualifying system, consisting of four components  – a prep season, a first- and second championship series, and a two-race wild-card opportunity – consists of 36 races and fits neatly onto one piece of paper. It was designed with the USA Today sports pages in mind, something that can be explained quickly and easily in our short-attention-span world.

It replaces the list of money-won by Kentucky Derby hopefuls in Graded stakes in North America and throughout the world. That list didn’t differentiate between races in July or August of a horse’s 2-year-old season vs. March or April of its 3-year-old campaign. A dollar won in a Graded race over six furlongs in July was the same as a dollar won going nine furlongs in April the following year. Money won on turf was the same as on dirt. There was no difference between a dollar won in a Grade 1 race vs. a Grade 3.

If John and other naysayers insist on saying this new qualifying system is just too complicated, I’d like him to explain in 100 words or less how the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association’s American Graded Stakes Committee goes about its business of designating a “grade” for various races. Take 200 words, John, or 500.  Hell, take a thousand. TOBA needs 5,000 words in its “members guide” to explain how the entire process works.

But the Road to the Kentucky Derby wasn’t put together just for simplicity’s sake. For the most part, it incorporates the best races at the best tracks. It uses points instead of money and weighs what traditionally are the most important preps more heavily than the early season races. At Gulfstream Park, for example, a victory in the Florida Derby is worth 100 points vs. 50 in the Fountain of Youth and 10 in the Holy Bull. How does that not make sense? Same thing goes for the Santa Anita Derby, the San Felipe and the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita Park, the Arkansas Derby, Rebel, and Southwest at Oaklawn Park, and the Louisiana Derby, Risen Star, and LeComte at Fair Grounds.

Is it perfect? No. I am stunned, for example, that fighting over Illinois racing dates could lead to the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne being excluded entirely. I would prefer to see the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile rewarded as a more worthy race to win than the Grey Stakes at Woodbine.

Horseplayers love to have things both ways. They embrace traditions, then complain about the lack of innovation. They are unhappy with the status quo, then decry any change. They are a walking contradiction.

People have been saying for years that too much money has gone into races for 2-year-olds and that too many horses have gone through a meat-grinder chasing all that cash. They have been saying the breed has been shaped too much toward speed and not enough toward longer races that require at least a modicum of stamina in the blood.

The Road to the Kentucky Derby takes those sprint races for 2-year-olds out of the equation entirely and puts the most qualifying points into the races for 3-year-olds run over a distance of ground (nine or 9 ½ furlongs).

We can go through the historical lists of Derby runners and say this horse or that one wouldn’t have made the starting field under the new criteria. That’s a completely meaningless exercise. Simply put, the “yeah buts” and “what ifs” from these nattering nabobs of negativism (thank you, Spiro!) are designed to neutralize innovation and change. Besides, as much as we’d like to think the Kentucky Derby belongs to all of us, the race is owned by Churchill Downs, Inc., and its executive team has a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders to make the most of its No. 1 property.

Let’s give it a chance to work.

***

Want to read the counterpoint to this piece?  Click here to read John Scheinman: New Derby Qualifying Plan a Bad Idea.

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  • John Scheinman

    Ray, you ignorant …

    Your last sentence makes the most sense: The Kentucky Derby doesn’t belong to us all, the race is owned by Churchill Downs. I get that, and I greatly admire the company’s attempts to grow and consolidate the might of America’s greatest race. It’s the best darn property they have, and they ought to be constantly thinking about ways to enhance it. I just think they have overstepped their boundaries in determining how people see fit to run their horses in preparation for such an important event and playing kingmaker determining which races have value and how much. I won’t argue with the head scratcher that is the American Graded Stakes Committee. I don’t need 200 words. I look at the Delaware Handicap and find it absurd that it still only rates Grade II status, when it has been of a far higher caliber than so many Grade I’s that coast along. We are in agreement that a point system would work well – so that’s me being for innovation. I strongly believe, though, the trainers should be as free as possible to prep as they see fit. As a fan – and this, supposedly, is for who all the fuss is about – I am absolutely fascinated when someone prepares for a major objective in an unorthodox manner. Could Trinniberg have finished higher if not forced to chase Bode? Probably not, but it was great to talk about in the week leading up to the race. How about the routine magic tricks from Michael Dickinson? Woody Stephens winning the Belmont with Conquistador Cielo five days after winning the Met Mile? I think freedom and imagination are among the things that set racing apart from the sports leagues. Surprise, not routine, sparks interest and conversation. I also don’t like that you could sweep the 2-year-old series at Saratoga and have no points to show for it, even though your horse would be unquestionably at the top of its class. Anyway, I want to thank you for equating me with Spiro Agnew, while I look at you and see Jane Curtin. In the words of the Cowardly Lion, “Put ‘em up!”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1314083810 Ron Micetic

    The Louisiana Derby held at the Fairgrounds (owned by Churchill Downs Inc.) is a 100 point race. What a self serving joke. Churchill Downs only does things that are beneficial for Churchill Downs.

  • RayPaulick

    John,

    Typewriters have this key that allows you start a new paragraph now and then. My attention span doesn’t allow me to read such long graphs. So nice try…

  • Ida Lee

    I know what you’re saying (I think) but like Mr. Paulick, I lost interest somewhere after getting tired of looking for a paragraph break. But I did notice your reference to Triniberg. I am not an “expert” on racing by no means, but I did wonder what a fantastic sprinter was doing in the Derby. There was no way he was going to win the Derby or any of the other two TC races no matter how much excitement (so you say) he brought before the actual Derby.  The excitement he brought (if I remember correctly) was as a brilliant sprinter!!! (Here it comes…wait for it…a new paragraph)

    I’m one of those people who tries to watch every Derby qualifying race there is. But I get very disappointed, and downright pissed, when the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th etc. of my favorites don’t make it to the Derby because they get hurt trying to build up the money to qualify. Now that’s depressing.

  • John Scheinman

    This is for Ida and Ray:

    Ray, you ignorant …

    Your last sentence makes the most sense: The Kentucky Derby doesn’t
    belong to us all, the race is owned by Churchill Downs. I get that, and I
    greatly admire the company’s attempts to grow and consolidate the might
    of America’s greatest race. It’s the best darn property they have, and
    they ought to be constantly thinking about ways to enhance it.

    I just
    think they have overstepped their boundaries in determining how people
    see fit to run their horses in preparation for such an important event
    and playing kingmaker determining which races have value and how much.

    I
    won’t argue with the head scratcher that is the American Graded Stakes
    Committee. I don’t need 200 words. I look at the Delaware Handicap and
    find it absurd that it still only rates Grade II status, when it has
    been of a far higher caliber than so many Grade I’s that coast along.

    We
    are in agreement that a point system would work well – so that’s me
    being for innovation. I strongly believe, though, the trainers should be
    as free as possible to prep as they see fit.

    As a fan – and this,
    supposedly, is for who all the fuss is about – I am absolutely
    fascinated when someone prepares for a major objective in an unorthodox
    manner. Could Trinniberg have finished higher if not forced to chase
    Bode? Probably not, but it was great to talk about in the week leading
    up to the race. How about the routine magic tricks from Michael
    Dickinson? Woody Stephens winning the Belmont with Conquistador Cielo
    five days after winning the Met Mile?

    I think freedom and imagination
    are among the things that set racing apart from the sports leagues.
    Surprise, not routine, sparks interest and conversation. I also don’t
    like that you could sweep the 2-year-old series at Saratoga and have no
    points to show for it, even though your horse would be unquestionably at
    the top of its class.

    Anyway, I want to thank you for equating me with
    Spiro Agnew, while I look at you and see Jane Curtin. In the words of
    the Cowardly Lion, “Put ‘em up!”

  • Barbara

    Where is the old Ray? The one that would have blasted CDI or BC (whichever he could type quickest) over an impasse that leads to giving the BCJ a 10 point Derby slot?

    Where is the old Ray that would have not just been stunned by the sideswipe of Hawthorne, but actually written an entire editorial on why CDI is the very definition of not working with anyone in the industry to better the sport, and only interested in their own self interest?

    And where is the Ray that would note that dismissing fall two year old racing at one mile or more – where future stars are made and Derby winter book favorites are hatched for as long as anyone I know has followed the sport – is a good idea? That move is even a bad idea for CDI, but their braintrust has too few cells among them and is too insular to ask for a more informed opinion (like yours, Ray) and instead would rather give a slot to a turf horse from Europe and a Tapeta victor shipping from Dubai.

    Maybe next CDI can try to charge every fan $50 for the time it takes their eyes to cross reading the four tier updates on the Road to Hell.

  • David

    I’m pleasantly surprised anything was done and, yes, the move is positive.  What I don’t understand is why graded earnings wouldn’t continue to be the measure, eliminate races of less than a mile and give added weight to mile given to events longer than 1 1/16th.  This way you allow an (supposed) ecumenical, industry committee do the analysis and stay away from the politics from pre-selecting races subject to cyclical (and economic) swings.  Again, style points to CD for at least showing concern its (or our) race is no longer the race of legends. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_P6SMDBQ5BXMXKGZN65DK2EXZ6U White

    I think you mean “keyboards” instead of “typewriters.”

  • RayPaulick

    No, White, I meant “typewriters.” 

    John is an old school journalist. He types everything on a typewriter, then turns it into the copy desk for editing by a guy wearing a green-shaded visor. 

    It then goes to typesetting, where it is then keystroked into a cathode-ray tube using the latest technology available. 

    And of course it’s an all-union shop.

    The only keyboard John uses is a Wurlitzer.

    Yes, I’m afraid he is living in the 1980s.

  • Rachel

    The UAE Derby is worth 10x more than the Champagne and BCJ?
    Second place in the UAE Derby is worth 4X the winner of the Champagne and BCJ?
    Third place in the UAE Derby is worth 2x the winner of the Champagne and BCJ?
    Fourth place in the UAE Derby is the equivalent of winning the Champagne and BCJ?
     
    Seriously?
    Well, at least it will ensure more Daddy Long Legs can run, and that makes it worth it all!

  • RayPaulick

    With its $2-million purse the UAE Derby previously was worth far more than any North American race for 3-year-olds leading up to the Kentucky Derby. The race now serves as the only opportunity for European runners (or those based in Dubai) to virtually guarantee a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting field. 

  • Rachel

    Why should they be “guaranteed a spot”?

  • ETC

    The LA Derby is worth 100 points because it is, like the Wood, Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby and Arkansas Derby, one of the last major KY Derby prep races. Also, it is a $1,000,000 race so it attracts some of the better three year olds in the country. Just because Hero Of Order won this year’s running doesn’t take away all credibility of the race. Mark Valeski is a nice colt and could have run in the Derby. He skipped and won the Peter Pan. Rousing Sermon ran in the Derby and didn’t disgrace himself. Cigar Street came out of the race with an injury.
     
         

  • Matthew Martini

    I have a hard time understanding why the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is worth only 10 points. It has the best prospects who race on dirt at the time. The Royal Lodge, which is a great race run on the turf, is also worth 10 points, but besides last year’s winner (Daddy Long Legs, who also won the UAE Derby), how many of the connections have pointed their horses to American dirt tracks out of this race? I would be curious to know.

    I think that the points system will be easy for casual fans and new fans to follow, and could help generate interest in the sport, if marketed well by the industry and television. I’m just a fan, but I also think it could make it tough on owners and trainers who come across setbacks with their horses, as the path to the roses has become considerably smaller. A concern could be whether the best horse will make the race next year.

  • race

    Ray– Yes inflated (racino), purses are not a way to quantify who gets into the Derby. But not giving the prestige that the Hopeful or Breeders Cup desrves is beyond me.

    Motion has a point, with regard to having a two year old do well in the Breeders Cup for instance, and giving him a breather.

    So let’s at least go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate the equation. I’m not saying throw it (the new system), away entirely, (like it would matter what we all thought), at least listen to those including yourself with tweaking it to give the races of tradition more say in who gets in.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/22NMCXRUWRKTKGNIG3HJBVJPQI Alex

    I am beginning to understand John’s aversion to changing the qualifying system.

  • Laura

     Agree.  Why should a European horse be guaranteed a slot, when there is no guarantee for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, or the Champion 2yo for that matter?  They can come over here, a la Bold Arrangement and prep here, just like the fillies and the turf horses in America are going to be forced to do (or the Breeders’ Cup champ, since 10 points is worth the same as a fourth place finish in some of the 3yo stakes).   I just see this setting up for a horse that runs third and fourth in a bunch of stakes excluding a name horse that didn’t run enough.

    I’ve had a couple of non-racing fans ask about this, and the system makes less sense to them.  They love to bet on the filly, should one run in the race, and they like to see the juvenile champ in the field, should he  be healthy enough to compete.  A system that excludes either doesn’t exactly increase interest.  You want a system that can be explained in about a sentence, which most graded stakes earnings did.  A non-horse racing fan doesn’t get into the details of the relative merits of the graded stakes like we do.  Right there is the qualifying system.  Most of my non-racing fans pay attention to exactly three racing days – the Derby, the Preakness, and the Breeders’ Cup, four if a Triple Crown is on the line.

  • Laura

     I’m with Matt. The Royal Lodge is a G2 in England.  It’s not even their championship event.  Why not the Racing Post Trophy, which is a G1?  Or why not the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf – to attract the Euros to ship to America to compete?

  • Madelinenr

     What if, what if? How about retaining graded stakes earnings as the measure, but only valuing those earned as 2YO and in racing less than a mile at 50%? How hard could that be?

  • James Staples

    @ next years ky derby they will tell all that use the HEADS how much TOILET PAPER one can use???…GMAFB…it sucks!!!…

  • BenKMcFadden

    Ray:
    You are correct on many points.  To answer critics re: Dubai; why shouldn’t world class foreign horses have a chance to “guarantee” a spot in the Derby?  Just because they don’t run in 2yo U.S. sprints they now are basically excluded.

    Scheinman has a long list of horses that would have been excluded who performed in the Derby.  The list of horses that didn’t get in that proved to be better in the long run is much longer.  How about the ones that didn’t get in that could have won?  Who knows; his points are history.  No one knows what might have been or what the new system will produce.

  • Terri Zeitz

    I read that Mine That Bird would not be able to be entered in the Derby under these new rules. And he not only won the Kentucky Derby but finished on the board for all three Triple Crown Races.

  • Terri Zeitz

    Why not make a positive change and limit the amount of horses to 16? And why not a Triple Crown for Fillies?

  • Lisa Wintermote

    There are already 2 triple tiaras for the fillies. The first (traditional) is the KY Oaks, the Black Eyed Susan, and the Acorn. The second (modern) is the Acorn, the Mother Goose, and the Coaching Club American Oaks. As an aside, in 1979 my Papa was a huge fan of the filly Davona Dale who won all the races comprising both the traditional and modern versions of the Triple Tiara. She is the only filly ever to accomplish this remarkable feat.
    We have the Davona Dale stakes at Gulfstream Park and I always think of my Papa that day. :-)

  • Lisa Wintermote

    It should be fun to watch the Mother Goose! If the brilliant Ghostzapper filly Contested wins, it sets up a chance for a filly Triple Tiara this year!

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