06/18/2012 9:39AM

Royal Delta, the Foster, and the Derby Points System


Race dynamics are like fingerprints. No two are exactly the same. They can be similar, but not identical. That’s why it is always risky business saying that such and such a horse could have won a certain race if he or she ran in it instead of another race. That said, on Sunday morning, I doubt anyone didn’t at least for a moment think this:

Royal Delta ran in the wrong race Saturday night.

On a clear Saturday evening at Churchill Downs where weather had absolutely no impact on the proceedings, Royal Delta tracked an early Fleur De Lis Handicap pace of 23.71 and 47.70, took over at will late on the far turn, and drew off under while wraps most of the rest of the way. She won by eight, getting her final furlong in 12.99 to complete the nine furlongs in 1:49.49.

Thirty-five minutes later, ostensibly tougher male handicap horses contested the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap. The first two splits of the Foster were very similar to that of the Fleur De Lis, 23.66 and 47.27. But as Wise Dan, who lost the Foster photo to Ron the Greek, and Nates Mineshaft, who finished a close third after setting the pace, zig-zagged all over the track in the stretch from fatigue, the final furlong of the Foster required an astoundingly slow 14.18 seconds. That, combined with a fourth quarter mile run in 25.38 meant that the final three furlongs of the Foster was run in an interminable 39.56, making for a final time of 1:50.51.

Of course, I’m not in any way suggesting that the connections of Royal Delta made a mistake by not running her in the Foster. There is just no way that Bill Mott, who trains both Royal Delta and Ron the Greek, could have known these races would play out the way they did. Besides, the big thing for Royal Delta Saturday was just getting her season back on track. And in fairness, no one really knows how Royal Delta would have handled a faster third quarter mile in the Foster than the one she encountered in the Fleur De Lis, although I doubt it would have made any difference. But how can anyone not think that Royal Delta would have won that Foster by about five lengths?

There are things to take away from these two races. For one, this Foster field was billed beforehand as being one of the deepest handicap fields assembled this year, and rightfully so. The only major two-turn older male I can think of who wasn’t in the race was Game On Dude. But while I respect Ron the Greek for being an opportunist (he also took advantage of a total pace meltdown when he won the Santa Anita Handicap earlier this year), and know that Wise Dan is capable of running much faster than he did Saturday night, and suspect that Alternation just has to be better than his non-effort in the Foster would suggest, it’s tough not to feel like many have felt all year: This group of older males just isn’t very strong. About the best you can say about them is they are entertaining, which is a backhanded compliment if there ever was one.

Royal Delta? That’s another story. She showed true brilliance on occasion during her championship 3-year-old filly campaign last year, and she was all of that again in the Fleur De Lis. Strangely, a lot of folks seemed to write her off this year. People were down on her after she was walloped by Awesome Maria in the Sabin Stakes in her first start this year, forgetting that was merely a prep for her goal of the Dubai World Cup. And I know it was difficult to see because the camera work was so awful, but I saw Royal Delta get checked all over track in Dubai. In any case, if Royal Delta were mine, and the handicap division doesn’t suddenly and unforeseeably get a lot better than it is now,  I would have no hesitation going after races like the Whitney, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup with her.

I know it’s a little late, but this is my first chance to weigh in with my thoughts on the new Kentucky Derby points system, announced last week. For many years, yours truly has called for the Derby’s previous graded stakes earnings rule to be improved by emphasizing 3-year-old earnings over 2-year-old earnings (with a couple of notable exceptions such as the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile), and emphasizing route earnings over sprint earnings, among other things. Frankly, I never thought Churchill Downs would ever do anything to address the matter, suspecting they kind of liked the controversy because it generated discussion.

But while I commend Churchill for trying to improve, this new system is a bit of a mess. As others have noted, I find the biggest problem with it to be that it is chronologically driven. I guess it was easier to classify Derby preps by when they are run as opposed to actually determining their real strength and impact, which would have taken some work. The devaluation of such important late season 2-year-old two turn races as the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the Remsen, Churchill’s own Kentucky Jockey Club, and the CashCall Futurity is wrong, and to suggest that these races have one-fifth of the value of the Gotham, the Tampa Bay Derby, the Rebel, and the Sunland Derby is just ridiculous.

Even more ridiculous is that England’s Royal Lodge stakes gets any points at all, or that the UAE Derby is classified as a prime prep on the order of the Arkansas, Florida, and Santa Anita Derbies, and Wood Memorial. Couldn’t we wait until at least one horse comes out of the UAE Derby and runs even a decent race in Kentucky before we anoint it a 100 pointer?

The cleanest way to have gone about this was to reward established, successful routes to the Derby, such as the Southern California, Florida, and Arkansas paths to Churchill Downs. Instead, often important early 3-year-old preps as the Sham, Robert B. Lewis, Holy Bull, and Southwest are deemed no more important than the Royal Lodge (ugh), the Grey, and the Delta Downs Jackpot. Sorry, that’s nuts.

Finally, whether intentional or not, there is a scent of politics at play here. Could the inexplicable valuation of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile have something to do with Churchill’s unfulfilled wish to be permanent host of the Breeders’ Cup? I don’t think the Illinois Derby is a major Kentucky Derby prep, but it should be worth some points. Could assigning no points to that race have something to do with Illinois racing dates?

Then again, if the Illinois Derby was made an official prep, it would have had to have been a 100 pointer because of when it is run. That would have been silly, of course, but assigning it fewer points wouldn’t have fit chronologically, and might have blown up the system. Some might think that wouldn't have been the worst outcome.