Scheinman: New Derby qualifying plan a bad idea

by | 06.18.2012 | 9:45am

The Kentucky Derby, the most important and exciting race in the country now, without question, has the most byzantine, dictatorial rules ever applied to a horse race.
At the highest levels of stakes racing, there are few entry restrictions other than sex or age. Trainers decide if their horses fit. The Kentucky Derby became a special case because of the intense demand to have one of the 20 entrants in the starting gate.
The graded stakes earnings list worked fine, and fairly remained neutral about where and how horses were prepared for the big race, even if the conditions of the Kentucky Derby in 2012 were a whopping 950 words long.
The new set-up literally tells horsemen where to go.

There were approximately 185 races worldwide that used to count toward graded earnings for the Kentucky Derby. Now, that has been reduced to 36.
The press release accompanying Churchill Downs' plan to institute a points system stated the change “was created to establish a clear, practical and understandable path to the first leg of horse racing's Triple Crown …”
I don't see how, without carrying around a chart of eligible prep races, this is going to be easier to understand than the horse has enough money to run or it doesn't.
The one, dubious, complaint about the money list was that a race like the Grade 3, $1 million Delta Jackpot eclipsed more traditional paths to the Kentucky Derby, thanks to an enormous purse fueled by slot machine revenue.
Fine, fix it. One obvious way would have been for Churchill Downs to confirm the primacy of Grade 1 races. They are the mark of excellence in the sport, and a point system developed around the graded events – most points for a top four finish in a Grade 1, sliding down to less points for a Grade 3 – would have made unobjectionable sense.
What we have gotten, instead, is Churchill Downs attempting to shape racing outside the realm of its jurisdiction using the overwhelming importance of the Kentucky Derby as its muscle.
Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger made a key point in his comments this week to Bloodhorse: “It's not leaving the horse alone, leaving the trainer alone, letting them plot their own course to get there. This way, once again, racetracks are starting to use horses to fit their agenda instead of allowing trainers to develop horses.”
The selection of which 36 races will constitute point-getting preps was not subtle. Everyone is talking about the Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne, which has been left out. The race catapulted War Emblem to victory in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2002; it was the key prep, as well, for 2006 Derby post-time favorite Sweetnorthernsaint.
Neither horse would make the field under the new criteria.
It looks pretty blatant why the Illinois Derby was left out of the new Kentucky Derby paradigm. Representatives from Arlington Park, owned by Churchill Downs Inc., went before the Illinois Racing Board last September and tried to have Hawthorne's spring racing dates killed.
They failed. Now it's payback time.
Worst of all, Churchill decided to award just 10 points to the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, a signature American race that usually crowns the 2-year-old champion. That makes it 10 times less important than the UAE Derby, contested in a desert on the other side of the world and worth 100 points to the winner.
The Breeders' Cup Juvenile ought to be a win-and-your-in type of race, and instead it's accorded the same stature as the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate.
Tueflesberg's fourth-place finish in the 2007 Blue Grass Stakes would have been worth as much as Street Sense's win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile under the new system. The winner of the Derby Trial, which has meant nothing for years as a prep, now is worth double the value of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
The new rules likely would have kept out:

  •     Commendable, who later won the 2000 Belmont Stakes;
  •     Invisible Ink, runner-up to Monarchos in 2001;
  •     Juvenile champion Johannesburg in 2002 (along with War Emblem);
  •     Ten Most Wanted, the third betting choice in 2003;
  •     Juvenile champion Action this Day, who would have not made the 2004 Derby; same with Birdstone, who laterupset Smarty Jones in the Belmont;
  •     Mine that Bird, who never would have pulled off his shocker with Calvin Borel in 2009; Summer Bird, who likely doesn't make that field, either;
  •     Trinniberg, because he didn't come up to the 2012 Derby in a Churchill-mandated manner.

The points structure virtually eliminates the value of success as a 2-year-old. As trainer Graham Motion told writer Alicia Wincze Hughes, a colt could win the Hopeful at Saratoga and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and if that horse misses a little training time with a minor injury, he would be forced to establish credentials for the Derby all over again. If he finishes fourth in a final prep, he might be perfectly set up for the race of his life in the Derby and not even get in.
Churchill Downs says it welcomes new ideas as they refine the new plans. Here is mine: Reinstate the value of the 185 graded stakes races for 2- and 3-year-olds, and let the horsemen decide where they see fit to run; then make a points system based on the graded value of those races.
Lastly, don't play politics with a race as important as the Kentucky Derby.


Want to read the counterpoint to this piece?  Click here to read Ray Paulick: ‘Road to the Kentucky Derby' Long Overdue.


    The biggest problem I have is Churchill bringing ANY kind of provinciality into the scoring system, which they have been apt to do with just about anything.  Clearly they have done this with the Illinois Derby and I would argue to a lesser extent with the 2-yr-old races and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

    This is America’s race; it just so happens to be held at Churchill Downs and for historical reasons that the current management and shareholders had absolutely nothing to do with.  There’s no place for provinciality, revenge-seeking or corporate shenanigans when it comes to something as important as qualifying for the sport’s most important race.  I couldn’t give a rip about their bottom line when it comes to this one.

  • Wnston

    Churchill sucks on many levels but this one is the right move! Everyone needs to stop looking backwrds. Look forward. There is a ROAD – follow it or risk not getting in. Very simple. My only exception is that the BC JUVenile should be at least double or triple points as that’s the 2 year old Championship. I love that the ILL Derby is left out – too many preps over that 3-4 week span. This will make preps 3-4 weeks out all the more interesting and important. Finally, some structure and…back to the old days with the final big preps meaning a lot more once again. 

  • Damon Runyon

    I agree with Scheinman.

    Ray, we all know CDI is one of your major advertisers, so good try.

  • Burton DeWitt

    Agree with John Scheinman that it was poorly implemented, although must say the Illinois Derby is a Grade 3, not a Grade 2.

  • RayPaulick


    Where were you when I criticized Churchill Downs for charging a non-refundable fifty bucks to anyone just for the right to apply for a seat purchase for the Kentucky Derby? Churchill Downs companies were advertising with Paulick Report then, too. 

    If you disagree with me, do so on the merits of my beliefs. 

  • ASL

    While I do appreciate Churchill’s efforts to emphasize races for later maturing three-year-olds, the point system is cumbersome and tries to create a new path to the Derby.  The international races should not have points when the Illinois Derby was given none.  Which race has actually produced a Derby winner?  It seems that politics was at hand in the formation of the point system.  It also seems that horsemen were not actually asked whether it was a practical, logical and do-able system. 

  • Jerryhis

    what if lasix is still use in graded race and they take the grade away like they have said they would going to do. how would you like the horse that wins the wood not be able to run in the derby because he did not get the graded money from it?

  • Barbara

    Well done John.

    One of the other issues for the “new plan” is that racing needs to be simplified, not made complicated in today’s short attention span society. They’ve just created mumble jumble that will be lost on many prospective “fans” and they will move on.

    Completely agree that simply implementing a points system that rewards Gr. 1 races with the highest value would have sufficed, and if promoted, been of as much value to draw in new fans as this complicated mess that devalues races that should matter like the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Champagne Stakes, and overvalues synthetic surface races, Dubai, as well as a Gr. 2 prep in New Orleans. The wild card add on for owners scrambling to get in is pandering to the lowest common denominator and a disservice to horses, too.

    Be nice to see CDI want to put on the best race with the 14 horses that belong in the ONE gate, not continue to promote a 20 horse spectacle of increased risk.

  • David

    You flatter CD and its manipulative skills.   CD actions and inaction over the past five years clearly indicate they could care less about cooperative industry strategy.  As to the theory they snubbed Hawthorne in deference to Mr. D and his shareholders influence such would be far too obvious.  No, I think they just blew it and the mistake was attempting to subjectively put any kind of list out in the first place; continue to utilize graded earnings, eliminate races at less than a mile and give added weight to those longer than a 1 1/16th.  Simple and you’re (CD) not subjected to the ridicule.  But, as Ray points out, these are the same geniuses that got a $50 hostage fee for the right to overpay for a few bad Derby tickets.

  • My Dog Ate My Homework

    When I read this points system I ceased all wagers on CDI tracks for the rest of the year.  They are morons.

  • My Dog Ate My Homework

     If you think Ray doesn’t do stories on his advertisers, both good and bad, then you have not been a fan of the Paulick Report for very long.  TVG gets bashed on here ad nauseum and Ray doesn’t delete the comments even though they are an advertiser.

  • Michael J. Arndt

    I am very. very. very happy to see the diminished value of 2 year old races under this system. It has never made sense to me that horses can accomplish enough during horse racings version of Junior Golf to then coast up to the Derby. Uncle Mo type campaigns arent what is needed to get the best 20 horses in the gate.

  • Damon Runyon

    Where was I? On your website (possibly using a different pseudonym) severely criticizing Churchill Downs for such a greedy move.

    I am sorry that I implied that your views could be influenced by the almighty dollar. The evidence clearly suggests otherwise. Hopefully, you will accept my apology.

    As I have stated before, I think this plan gives CDI too much power to dictate which races a horse must run in prior to earning a spot in the Kentucky Derby.

    I am concerned that it will diminish the traditional, high-level, two-year-old races, like the Hopeful, Champagne, Breeders’ Futurity, and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

    Moreover, it will no doubt, eliminate any filly from the race.

    I like the idea of points based on Graded status.

  • Triplecrownquest

    Not a peep yet from Del Mar about their 2 yr old stakes…The Best Pal & Del Mar Futurity losing a LOT of luster now that they are not part of the Derby Picture?  The Illinois Derby being left out and some International race put in, is the what makes this new system a joke…C+ for effort…F- for results.

  • Triplecrownquest

    At one time..25 horses were allowed..but horses were bred to be much stronger and to run longer back then…not the fragile medicated horses that are bred now…20 horses is fine…leave it that way

  • Bryan Langlois (ShelterDoc)

    I’d love to see the number reduced to 14 too, but we all know that will never happen because of all the extra revenue in bets CDI would draw in on those extra horses.  Unfortunately it is going to take a catastrophe (almost had it this year when it was Prospective (I think) that clipped heals and nearly dumped the jock.  All it will take is one of those major incidents in the cavalry charge through the stretch the first time to make them change.  Unfortunately…most things in this sport are reactionary…

  • My Dog Ate My Homework

    You mean there’s no D Wayne Lukas exclusion so he can run his entry level allowance horses in the the Derby?

  • Bryan Langlois (ShelterDoc)

    I do find it a little interesting that all of the horses that are mentioned as most likely not getting a spot in the gate were more flash in the pan horses who got amazingly lucky trips or never regained their form after the Triple Crown.  Does that make them less worthy of winning the race?  I don’t know.  But of all those mentioned, it seems to me like maybe it would have thinned the field in those years, making it a more truly run race.  And Commendable??  Come on?  All props to the horse for winning the Belmont…but not exactly sure he was Derby winning material.  The list also points out horses that did things later in the Triple Crown races…not the Derby.  This only affects the Derby.  The other two almost never over subscribe. 

  • Ohio Bred Girl

    Exactly.  “What we have gotten, instead, is Churchill Downs attempting to shape racing outside the realm of its jurisdiction using the overwhelming importance of the Kentucky Derby as its muscle.”

  • LongTimeEconomist

    David, your plan is similar to one I have advocated for several years. But, unfortunately Churchill gets to call the shots on this and I doubt they have the humility to admit how bad their plan is and change to a better one.

  • Rachel

    This is a good article.
    I agree…manipulating the schedules by allowing only 20% of all graded stakes, cherry-picked, certainly does limit where trainers can run.
    For the first time the Kentucky Derby has become less important to me.

  • This is not about points, or horses, or horsemen. How many horses have been excluded from running in the Derby with the previous system, which included graded stakes from all tracks?  It is strictly a political and financial agenda.  Period.  Do they think everyone is stupid, and can’t see what this whole revamping is really about?

  • they have been MORONS for a long time…there will be a new “TRIPLE DIPPER” in the U.S. in the very near future…BOOK THAT BABY!!!…ty MDAMH… 

  • Ray…sounds like U got hold of some BAD SMOKE???…Please…no ty on this one…

  • John Scheinman

    Hey, Michael, if you think 2-year-old racing is like “Junior Golf,” I invite you to Saratoga this summer to see how amazingly fast and competitive that junior golf is. You win the Hopeful, you are one tough son of a gun, regardless of how much Churchill Downs and the American Graded Stakes Committee try to minimize the value of that race. Here, below on Wiki, is it’s list of winners. Brother, there are very few junior golfers on there.

  • Gfpowell

    I luv their innovative idea!

  • churchill is digging its own GRAVE!!!…& it makes ME HAPPY…in FIVE YEARS it will not be the TOP RACE in the U.S…that JOINT is worn out…ty…

  • Charles Decker

    Terrific piece John.  Churchill Downs = Facist State.

  • Tsford1975

    I think the wiser move would to have only counted 25-50% of earning earned during their 2 year old seasons and left the rest alone. 

  • Stanley inman

    Thanks for your observations. As a cd shareholder I still have problems with their plan too.
    It looks like it’s design was constructed by a bunch of suits- no imput from horsemen. All they had to do was walk over to the backside and ask those who put the show on whether their plan was complete. Dale Romans and others would have brought up the obvious shortcomings had they really wanted a good plan.

    Their disinterest in their pArtners observations is revealing.

    How does Churchill think they can soplift the status, history and significance of those races for their own benefit and not share the rewards with all those players.

    If I wanted to open a pizza shop and call it Churchill downs pizza, their lawyers would be all over me. If I owned the rights from any of those races chhurchill would have to pay to use the rights they don’t own, otherwise I refuse to play. Same for the rights of all the owners and horsemen who make their derby road noteworthy.
    Why does e veryone stand around with their hands in their pockets instead of standing up for their rights. If you don’t- take a look- Churchill will have it all.

  • Scott Goddard

    Complaints about the new Derby qualifying system mostly harp
    on its not being “fair”, or that it might not place the best 20 horses in the
    starting gate. Neither of those are CDI’s concern. CDI’s concern is to increase
    TV ad revenues and wagering handle for the Derby. Period.


    They’ve made the call (and probably the right one) that they
    can increase public enthusiasm by narrowing the pathway leading in. It’s not
    rocket science—What works for other successful sports-entertainment entities? Preliminary
    qualifying contests gaining increasing importance at each round, building
    interest for the ultimate event. Nobody gets into the Final Four by winning a
    Christmas tournament, nor does winning a game in September put one in the Super


    The undertow effect created by horse racing’s financial
    quagmire means CDI is unlikely in the short term to realize any significant
    increased revenue from their day-to-day racing product. Surely they feel some
    urgency to maximize the revenue generated by their flagship event. And in
    pursuit of that, I don’t fault them for taking a stab at emulating successful business operations. 

  • Ron Crookham

    I say ignore Churchill Downs and move the first leg of the Triple Crown to another venue. Then in a few years they can use churchill Downs for nascar races and they still get to have a point system. ;)

  • Barbara

    Racing doesn’t have the awareness or audience of major team sports, although last time I checked the regular season record is still what qualifies you to even make the playoffs or final tournaments;-)

  • Forego

    I agree with Bob Baffert….if they were going to change anything, make it the field size.  With a 20-horse field, sooner or later there is going to be a terrible spill on national TV in the Kentucky Derby and that will set racing back years.  Of course with Churchill Downs, it is all about the money, and they can’t see that happening.  Why are they changing a system that has been working fine?  Even with 20 horses.

  • I am still at a loss as to what was wrong with the graded earnings qualifier.

  • Don Reed

    Had the Illinois Derby been running all these years at Arlington (Churchill Downs-owned), no chance it would have been given the shaft.  See how this works?

    Considering the brutal casualty rate of Derby runners, post-Derby, ths might just go down in racing lore as the greatest inadvertent good deed ever done for the owners.

  • tfly

    Would Big Brown have made it in?

  • Figless

    So you are OK with TWO Derby winners in the last 11 years not making the field at all due to this new system? The Earnings system was sick but this cure is worse than the systems. Simple solution, use the existing Graded system to create a graduated point structure giving more Weight to G1 and double the points for Male Graded races on true dirt at one mile or over. So simple, takes politics out of the equation, I wrote this on one of these blogs about two years ago.

  • Bryan Langlois (ShelterDoc)

    The argument is always there that the best horse does not win the Derby, but the one who is the luckiest.  Granted great horses will overcome bad trips, but…yeah, I am ok with 2 of the winners not making it into the field in their respective years.  BUt that is just me and my opinion. 

  • Bryan Langlois (ShelterDoc)

    And I do agree with you that the system now is not as good as it could be, but it is still better than the old graded earnings system.  A lot of people are saying that this system forces a trainers hand.  I would argue the other system did as well.  How many times in the past few years have you heard trainers say “It’s not the best that we go in this race, but we need the graded earnings so we have to go”

  • Jeff

    So, building future stars from their prominence as 2-year-olds no longer counts? Uncle Mo’s injury aside, he was THE Derby talk for months.

    All they needed to do was limit the field to 14. That would by itself sort out the less accomplished dollar earners. This is a stupid solution.

  • Nafzger got it right, they are using horses to fit their agenda. Typical of horse racing, everyone looking out for themselves regardless of what is right or best for horse racing. This is absolute nonsense, almost as stupid as the horsemen who were calling for the government to regulate medication. The current system could easily be tweaked to give less importance to 2yo races and sprints and give the trainers the leeway they need to get their horses ready as thet see fit. 

  • horse

    For a truly International flavor, where are the Graded Races from the southern hemisphere?

  • Mitch

    Summarily agreed, but all the more reason to establish a governing body to approve game-changing decisions by one of its players. And, yes, leaving out the Illinois Derby, a G2 race, is beyond comical, but give CDI a little credit; it’s not like they hid their agenda.

  • RayPaulick

    There is a complication (one that the UAE Derby has dealt with through weights) in that Southern Hemisphere horses are bred and foaled during the second half of the calendar year.

  • I love the picture accompanying this piece.  Loved the piece – commendable and I heartily agree, but a blank piece of “paper” with that picture of the dead roses says it all for me.  I’m so unhappy with the horse industry right now, and one of the horses I sponsor passed away over the weekend (Love you, Buddy!) so all in all, the wilted roses express how I feel inside about just about everything except retired horses.  :(((

  • Michael Cusortelli

    That’s OK. He can still run maidens in the KY Oaks.

  • Wmarshall

    Pretty much agree with what is stated here.  Also, as long as Keeneland runs on synthetic, there is no way the Blue grass Stakes should be a top-rated prep.  Justtake a look at how horses coming out of the Blue Grass since it has been on synthetic have performed in the Derby.  Also, a late developing filly like Rachel Alexandra would not be able to run.  Fillies in the Derby?  Well we just might have our fourth straight female Horse of the Year in Royal Delta.  Would also like to see the Derby field cut as Baffert suggests.  Too many Lookin’ at Lucky and Union Rags situations. 

  • Don Reed

    “Summarily?”  Que pasa?

  • Don Reed

    Well said, Bob. Do you get the feeling that the Yum! mentality (homogenize everything into the lowest common denominator, as in tasteless, gut-filling “food”) is steamrolling the evaluation end of the thinking –

    If “thinking” can describe what preceded the decision?

    Nope. Thought would have resulted in the horses that belong in the race being given the highest priority; WHERE they run on the way to the Derby is an automatic secondary consideration.

    As usual, CD had gotten it ass-backwards.

    Do you ever wonder how these guys manage to dress themselves in the morning, before going to work?

    “Um. Bob. Why do you have a tie – tied around your ankle?”

  • idavis

    Based on CD’s horrendously skewed revamp of the rules for getting your runner into the Kentucky Derby, CD doesn’t deserve to run the Kentucky Derby.  Most comments posted that reveal the flaws of the CD revamp plan, I agree with, such as their vendetta against the Illinois Derby as qualifying race.  I cannot believe that owners and trainers of these magnificent athletes will take this lying down…this is outrageous behavior of a track that is only about the $$$….forget about those putting on the show.  It’s politics as usual..continuing to ruin a wonderful sport.  The most egregious flaw w/this lame-brained scheme is the dismissal of all filly races!  If I were an owner of a filly, the likes of a Zenyatta, Rags to Riches or Rachel Alexandra, I’d be inflamed, to say the least!  This is an over-reach of power beyond belief! 

  • Sammys7

    Why do you think they are using the UAE there getting paid off by the Prince.

  • Indulto
    With apologies to Del Shannon and Max Crook:
    As I race along
    I wonder
    A-what went wrong
    With how the Derby
    Determines which horses belong
    And as I think about
    Which races
    They’ll do without
    Choosing the right one
    Becomes harder to figure out
    I’m a-wondering where to race
    And be able to get stall space
    In the East or in the West
    Or would the South be best
    And I wonder
    I wah-wah-wah-wah-wonder
    Why, why, why, why, why
    They did away
    With opportunities
    To stay in play
    Perhaps I’ll run away
    Run, run, run, run, run away
    Maybe Churchill Downs
    Doesn’t worry
    About horsemen’s frowns
    Or interfering with
    Plans to win Triple Crowns
    Rather than take a poll
    Their CEO
    Went on to extol
    The virtues
    Of CDI being in control
    I’m a-watching cluelessness
    Tears are falling at the silliness
    Wishing it would all go away
    But there’s Churchill’s price to pay
    And I wonder
    I wah-wah-wah-wah-wonder
    Why, why, why, why, why
    They wouldn’t stay
    Satisfied with hosting
    Racing’s biggest day
    I guess I’ll stay away
    Stay, stay, stay, stay, stay away

  • Don Reed

    Indy, you have just justified having to sort though hundreds of less-than-desirable posts in the search for talent & entertainment.  These reworked lyrics are PERFECT.

    My prediction is that this message is going to circle the globe, in its wake, international laughter .  Take a bow!

    Don Reed 06/19/12 (11:48 pm)

  • Don Reed

    Oops!  Make that, “Um, Joe…” [Harold, Leroy, Bernie, etc.].  The last Bob is not a reference to you!

  • Don Reed

    Is “flavor” the right word to use, in the context of horses?  Hmmm.

  • Indulto

    Thanks for the kind words. With exception of the “Illinois Derby gorilla in the room,” my own position on the rest is closer to Mr. Paulick’s, but it was Mr. Scheinman who inspired me this time.

  • BenKMcFadden

    In case no one has noticed there is no central body making the rules.  CDX is run for CDX.  Want to be in the Derby, play by their rules.  Whether anyone likes the rules or not won’t change a thing and won’t effect the Derby other than possible makeup of the field.

    The public who watches maybe 3 races per year and the TV guys don’t care what the horses are named, who owns them, or where they came from.  Those who watch will watch, and those that don’t will not.

    Tempest in a teapot.

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