01/08/2013 3:24PM

Problems with the Kentucky Derby point system


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?