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.”
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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