by | 11.17.2010 | 12:46am
By Ray Paulick

Bob Evans, president and chief executive officer of Churchill Downs Inc., said during a Friday morning press conference at the company's flagship track in Louisville, Ky., that the CDI board of directors discussed the possibility of reducing the field size of the Kentucky Derby during a regularly scheduled meeting in New Orleans last week.

The Derby's maximum field size of 20 is under scrutiny in the wake of the death of the filly Eight Belles in last year's Derby, even though her fatal injuries occurred after the finish and apparently were unrelated to the number of runners or trouble she may have encountered in the race. The Derby traditionally has the largest field of any race in the United States. No Derby starter has fallen during the running of the race since 1970, when Holy Land clipped heels and fell going into the far turn.

By contrast, Breeders' Cup fields are limited to 14 starters.

Maximum field size of 14 horses and the prohibition of fillies running against males were considerations in an original discussion document circulated by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association to industry leaders who formed what ultimately came to be known as the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance.

Field size or sex limitations were not part of the final recommendations of the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance Pledge, which can be viewed by clicking here.

Evans said CDI has devoted a great deal of time and resources to examine a wide range of safety issues since the death of Eight Belles and has adopted all of the safety recommendations made by committees formed earlier this year by the Jockey Club and Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.

The CDI board discussed the reduction of the field size, Evans said, though he gave no indication whether a change will be made. “For now, it's the way it's always been,” he said. Nominations to the Triple Crown races, including the Derby, state that the size of the Derby can be “up to 20 horses.”

A reduction in field size might not be greeted favorably by horse owners and trainers who throughout the winter and spring closely follow whether their 3-year-olds are in the leading 20 contenders, based on money earned in graded or group stakes races. Churchill recently announced a marketing agreement with Kempton racecourse in England that will guarantee one spot in the Derby field to the winner of the Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes, a 1 1/8-mile race on Polytrack, on March 18.

Handle on the Derby would also decline in the event of a reduction in the field size. Evans said Churchill has researched Derby handle in relationship to field size but would not say how much handle might fall. A reduction from 20 to 14 starters would also cost Churchill Downs $300,000 in lost entry and starting fees ($25,000 to enter and $25,000 to start).

Evans discussed the Derby field size and other safety measures following a media briefing announcing that Oaks and Derby ticket prices, with a few exceptions, would be frozen in 2009. “Our slowing economy is having a pronounced effect, and many of our customers have been affected in various ways as well,” Evans said. “Although the Kentucky Derby occupies an elite spot in the world of sports and tickets are typically in high demand, we want to keep our price points at the same level to help our customers in this challenging economic climate.” Click here to read more about the ticket price freeze.

The only exceptions will be scheduled price increases in the 30-year personal seat license program, which are coming off a three-year price freeze; some luxury suites and Marquee Village accommodations; and reserved seats in the infield.

Churchill Downs is also offering the opportunity for on-track customers to buy Derby reserved seats in a sweepstakes running each day from tomorrow (Saturday, Nov. 22) through Nov. 29. Individuals whose names are drawn will be eligible to buy two Derby tickets ranging in price from $88 to $207. (Derby tickets range in price from $88 for infield reserved seats to $693 on millionaire's row.) One thousand of the tracks 55,000 seats are being offered in the sweepstakes. For more details, click here.

Copyright © 2008, The Paulick Report

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