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.
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