01/08/2013 4:24PM

Problems with the Kentucky Derby point system

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When the new Kentucky Derby points system was introduced last June by Churchill Downs, the two things people seemed to get most worked up over were the exclusion of the Illinois Derby from the group of final Derby preps offering those now all-important Derby points that will determine the starting field, and the inclusion of the Royal Lodge Stakes. It remains a mystery how a one mile turf race for 2-year-olds run in England is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby, or how the Illinois Derby snub has not yet been rectified, but that’s how it is.

Otherwise, it does appear that Churchill’s intentions were good. In the official release that accompanied the Derby point system announcement, CDI Chairman and CEO Bob Evans was quoted as saying, “Our primary driving motive is to create new fans for horse racing.”  Another quote from Evans was, “We want to maximize the quality if the Derby field and protect the integrity of the race, while respecting the tradition and relevance of paths taken to the race by previous Kentucky Derby winners and prominent starters.”

It is impossible to take issue with any of that. Any of it. But there are some troublesome aspects to this point system one can take issue with.

The release accompanying last June’s announcement stated that Churchill Downs officials will review which races will be included in the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” series annually. Plans call for the schedule to be announced each July. And Kevin Flannery, President of Churchill Downs Racetrack, was quoted as saying, ”At this point and time, what we’ve assumed here is that the racetracks will run the same races under the same conditions around the same dates as last year. If not, we’ll have to adjust the schedule.”

Here’s what’s problematic: For one, announcing the entire Road to the Derby schedule in July, almost half a year before horses turn 3, seems premature. It does make sense to reveal at that point whatever 2-year-old races Churchill intends to include. But wouldn’t it be much wiser to wait until, say, December to announce the 3-year-old portion of the points program? I think it would, if for no other reason than Churchill would have in hand the actual stakes schedules of some key winter tracks. That means that Churchill would be doing a lot less assuming, which can only be good.

Then there is the matter of adjusting the schedule, which Flannery said would happen. The problem is, it’s not happening. The exclusion of the Illinois Derby still has not been remedied, and then there is the matter of last Saturday’s Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct, which is what got me to thinking about this.

I am not the first to notice that the Jerome was absent from Churchill’s points prep list, and yet the Sham, run the same day at Santa Anita, was a points prep, albeit a small one. Of course, Churchill’s Road to the Derby was announced last June, well before the New York Racing Association decided to move the Jerome to the winter, but that’s where adjusting the schedule should have come in.

In any case, it’s easy to disagree now after the Jerome and Sham were run. But beforehand, on paper, I thought the Jerome was the better of the two races with a greater depth of quality in the field. The Jerome was also a Grade 2 compared to the Sham’s Grade 3, and with a purse of $200,000, it was worth twice as much as the Sham. And yet the winner of the Jerome received zero points, and the winner of the Sham got 10, which isn’t a lot, but is something.

The Jerome oversight should have been addressed last week, before these two races were run, with the sort of schedule adjustment Churchill promised. It’s folly to create a schedule of prep races offering points that will be crucial in determining the starting field of the Kentucky Derby a full six, seven, or eight months before the fact, and then let it all run on autopilot without any well considered, and necessary, tinkering down the line. Churchill should be monitoring 3-year-old races every week now, looking for stakes that merit addition to the points program. After all, isn’t one of the main intentions of this new point system is for it to be better than the graded stakes rule it replaced?

Nick Kenyon More than 1 year ago
the problem with this new points system isthat a horse like revolutionary who is expected to run only one more race if he bounces or flops hes out. and this could happen to any horse. the new system dictates where horses will run a horse could win many stakes races not get enough points then here comes a horse that wins a second leg race and picks up 100 points because something happened in the race that allowed him to win on a fluke and before that he did nothing and he gets in and not the accomplished stakes winner.
Ann Maree More than 1 year ago
I think many tweaks likely will be made once a complete cycle of this Derby season has had a chance to run. While it may be frustrating to some that some of the more obvious adjustments aren't being addressed at this time, I can understand not "piecemealing" the process at this point. I'm betting they are already at work on changes that will be announced in June. Hopefully, Mike's suggestions, as well as others I have read, will be on the table to consider. The old adage about "too many cooks" never had more meaning. Yes, they could adopt some of the obvious adjustments, but then, there would be more after the conclusion of this year's Derby. Better to let this season play out, then make adjustments all at the same time.
Lawrence Wagner More than 1 year ago
I agree that the old earnings system was lacking. A points system is preferable, but it seems to me that a simpler solution was just laying in front of us. Prep races are graded. Why not, for 3 y/o G1=100 pts, G2=75 pts, G3=50 pts? For 2 y/o, cut the values in half. Keep it simple.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When is the last time any winner from Dubai hit the board ? They could give 20 million away in that joke of a race.What a slam to American racing to exclude the Illinois Derby.Any qualifier from Dubai is like putting lipstick on a pig.What a farce .
Hadrian Marcus More than 1 year ago
No mystery why the Illinois Derby was shunned....just typical CDI tactics. And not a mystery why 20 horses rather than 14...opportunities for more higher odds combinations encouraging more wagering. It's about the money, not the quality of racing or horse safety with CDI. And if CDI really wanted the point system to matter...competing for just 14 spots who make for a better pre-Derby show. A reduced opportunity for fillies and the BC Juvenile barely mattering...makes for a lesser show as well. Besides, given the state of the horse industry..most of of the 3 year olds will be retired by August anyway in the annual chase for breeding bucks. I'll save my energy for the Distaff and Handicap divisions....more fun to me.
SR Vegas More than 1 year ago
opps. Let me correct and say ..all routes, races are 1M - 1 1/16M and 1 1/8 mile ... SR Vegas
SR Vegas More than 1 year ago
Alice Baumi you posted in part: ".. Instead graded races are left out .." What graded races are you referring to ? The 36 races that make up the Derby points races are GR1, GR2, or GR3 races. With that said, the new system focuses entirely on routes 1M - 1 1/16M on dirt. We do miss the turf races and any sprint races that could be used as prep races during the season for the horses, and any GR stakes dollars that use to come from those races. SR Vegas
SR Vegas More than 1 year ago
Hey Mike Enjoy your columns, I just don't post here very often. you noted " And yet the winner of the Jerome received zero points, and the winner of the Sham got 10, which isn’t a lot, but is something...' I have to think that in the end that 10 points will mean alot. I have read that (40) points or so could be what can make the derby gate. Of course that (to me) is subjective as this IS a new sysem and who knows what will be that magic 'number' at derby time. But, theoretically speaking, if so, 10 points is 25% of that total and IS alot to that total. 1-2 points difference as in the 3rd and 4th place point finishes ...I'd call that "isn't alot". I take the same approach as Raymond -who posted earlier .."it's new" ..and will take a wait and see attitude. This new system kinda feels like the fantasy stables and games I have been participating in the last several years though. Points systems and selective races. Nothing wrong with the process and if it attracts new fans, the better.. as Mine thatbird noted. Still, enjoyed your article and especially the comments it's brought. We've been talking about the old Graded Stakes $$ criteria and the new points system over at Dan's Blog . Seeing how that is currently shaking out . I'm compiling overall Graded stakes dollars vs what they made in the points races , but am curious if anyone at DRF has the graded stakes dollar numbers already ? ( lwhat DRF use to compile during the derby prep season) Would be an interesting side by side comparision , hmm? BTW , will you be comming to LV for the NHC in a couple weeks? If so, I'll make sure to stop by and say hello. SR Vegas
Toni Burek-Wozniak More than 1 year ago
I like the points system. The old earnings system was fine until Delta Downs set up their 1 Million 2 year old race. That started the dominoes toward change which was needed. How long would it have been before another smaller track set up their million or million plus race for 2 or 3 year olds from their casino money. I know they would have to wait years for graded status but it would come eventually. Horsemen have always been known to follow the money. Besides who is to say that the current March and April Graded Derbies would increase purses to give horses behind the earnings eightball one last chance to make the cutoff with an inflated earnings distribution. Under the points system, these March and April races all carry the same importance.
Thomas V.S More than 1 year ago
Mike, I have long held the belief that the Derby field should be 14 horses. I believe this would allow them to adjust the main starting gate and the 1 post would no longer be the kiss of death. Unfortunately, too many owners want to have a "Derby" horse whether they belong or not, and the expansion of the field to 20 means increased entry fees. I am also certain that the qualifying races will be "adjusted" for their perceived relevance in future years. I strongly agree that the emphasis on 3 year-old races as opposed to earnings in 2 year-old races as a factor in determining elgibility.
andrew More than 1 year ago
I think it should remain 20, this is a once in a lifetime race for 3 year olds and more than 14 should get the oppurtunity and having a 20 horse field is what makes it difficult and challenging and the true test of a champion.