Updated on 02/25/2013 11:18AM

Andrew Beyer: Kentucky Derby point system - a vote in favor

Barbara D. Livingston
Normandy Invasion is scheduled to make his 3-year-old debut Saturday in the Risen Star, part of a big field chasing the 50 points that will go to the winner in the Kentucky Derby's new qualifying system.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — When the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park and the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds are run on Saturday, people who follow thoroughbred racing will watch intently, even if they don’t have a financial stake in the outcome. The prep races that lead to the Kentucky Derby annually engage the attention of fans trying to spot the future winner of America’s most famous race.

But there is a new twist on the road to the Derby this year. Churchill Downs has changed the system to determine who gets into the Derby field and who doesn’t. The new rules will put added pressure on owners and trainers and ought to make the pre-Derby campaign even more competitive.

Churchill limits the Derby to 20 starters and for decades has given preference to horses on the basis of their earnings in graded stakes. The system wasn’t completely rational; horses got credit for earnings in 2-year-old races, sprints and grass races that had little or no relevance to the Derby. Moreover, purse money has ceased to reflect the importance of a prep race. The Delta Jackpot for 2-year-olds, run at little Delta Downs in Louisiana, offers a $1 million purse bolstered by slot-machine revenue, and thus counted for more than the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, which has produced 16 winners of the Run for the Roses.

It is important to have fair rules governing eligibility because the Derby in recent years has regularly attracted more than 20 prospective runners. So Churchill Downs eliminated the money standard and replaced it with a system awarding points to the top four finishers in designated stakes races. The 20 horses with the highest point totals get into the starting gate. Every stakes run prior to Feb. 23 bestowed 10 points to the winner. The events that Churchill has anointed the "Championship Series" begin Saturday with the Fountain of Youth and the Risen Star. These and six others are worth 50 points to the winner, followed by seven (including the biggies, such as the Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial and Florida Derby) that are worth 100.

The new rules have generated plenty of controversy. The Risen Star Stakes and the Louisiana Derby — traditionally regarded as second-tier prep races — were accorded 50- and 100-point status, respectively. (Churchill Downs, Inc. owns the Fair Grounds, where they are run.) The Illinois Derby at Hawthorne, which has grown in importance and produced the 2002 Kentucky Derby winner, was excluded from the list entirely. (Hawthorne was involved in a dispute over racing dates with the other Chicago track, Arlington Park, owned by Churchill Downs, Inc.) Many critics lambasted the fact that the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile earns only 10 points, creating the possibility that the champion of a thoroughbred generation wouldn’t qualify to run in the Derby.

On balance, though, I believe the new system will make the prep-race season better than ever. Trainers habitually try to get to the Derby by taking the path of least resistance and ducking the toughest competition. Important showdowns in the prep races have been increasingly rare. Even though most top 3-year-olds are stabled in Florida, the 2012 Fountain of Youth drew only seven starters and the Florida Derby a field of eight.

Under the new system, it’s almost impossible for trainers to duck meaningful competition. The Fountain of Youth Stakes, headed by Todd Pletcher’s undefeated Violence, drew 11 entrants and the Risen Star will have at least 12 starters, with half of the field coming from tracks outside the state.

The new framework for the prep races comes in a season that has the potential to produce some bona-fide 3-year-old stars. Of course, it is premature to make such any definite judgments; most of the Derby prospects are lightly raced and largely untested. But speed figures suggest that this may be an above-average crop. When I’ll Have Another won last year’s Derby, he earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 101. Already this winter four colts have recorded a figure of 101 or higher.

Some of the colts regarded as top Derby contenders have done so little that it is hard to take them seriously yet. Violence is No. 3 in the Daily Racing Form's rankings after winning a stakes on a synthetic surface with an easy trip and a low speed figure. Flashback is No. 2 after dominating a four-horse field in California. But there are a few colts who already look like credible Derby contenders. My top four:

1. Normandy Invasion

2. Itsmyluckyday

3. Super Ninety Nine

4. Verrazano

The last horse on this short list has generated the most buzz. The Pletcher-trained Verrazano has won his two starts at Gulfstream this winter by a combined total of 24 lengths. He appears to have limitless potential, but until a youngster faces stakes competition and encounters some adversity, it’s prudent to withhold judgment.

Super Ninety Nine won a fast allowance race at Santa Anita, followed by an 11-length romp in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park on Monday. He not only has talent, he has Bob Baffert as his trainer, and nobody in the profession is better at getting horses revved up for the first Saturday in May.

Itsmyluckyday is no prodigy like Verrazano; he had raced seven times before anybody thought of him as a Derby horse. But he delivered two authoritative victories in stakes at Gulfstream, including a decisive win over Eclipse Award winner Shanghai Bobby. He looks like a solid distance runner, and he’ll have more seasoning than any major Derby contender.

Normandy Invasion delivered what may have been the most eye-catching performance by any member of his generation when he lost the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct in November. Coming from the rear of the field, he made a powerhouse move on the final turn before losing a head-bobbing photo finish with Overanalyze. It was the kind of move that frequently carries a horse to glory on the first Saturday in May. Normandy Invasion makes his 3-year-old debut in the Risen Star, and fans trying to spot the 2013 Kentucky Derby winner should be watching him closely.

(c) 2013, The Washington Post

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the track where Super Ninety Nine won a fast allowance race. That event took place at Santa Anita, not Hollywood Park.

BrandonLayer More than 1 year ago
Since 1985 the following races have produced the most Derby winners Santa Anita Derby 8 Florida Derby 7 Blue Grass 6 San Felipe 6 BC Juvenile 5 CashCall Futurity 5 Arkansas Derby 4 Wood Memorial 4 Fountain of Youth 3 Robert B. Lewis 3
Black More than 1 year ago
Andy had a derby winner ,his name was Secretariat. Spend A Buck would've recieved 3 points under this system.
BigBear More than 1 year ago
Bottom line: it's Churchill's race and they can do what they want. But The system reeks of collusion and outright favoritism towards the tracks that Churchill has ownership in. This leaves whatever positives the system has overshadowed by the criticism of favoring their own tracks. Just like the West Coast screws the East in the Breeders Cup.
BrandonLayer More than 1 year ago
Is favoritism towards the tracks Churchill owns the reason Churchill gave points to the ungraded Smarty Jones? A race that didn't count for anything under the old system, that is on the same weekend as the LeCompte, a graded stakes that has always counted. If they were favoring Churchill owned tracks why would they give horses an option to pick up points by not running in their race the LeCompte? Under the old system you had to stay at the Fair Grounds. Under the new system you can leave the Fair Grounds for Oaklawn. And this is favoring Fair Grounds? You theory doesn't hold water. Know what you are saying before you just go repeating what other ignorant people have said. They don't know what they are talking about either.
Greg Rouch More than 1 year ago
Reassuring. I had been quizzical. I hope that someone is keeping track of graded earnings, a la the old system, so that we can compare the new results to the old, ie., the field in the 2013 Derby starting gate versus what it would have been under the old rules. I suspect there won't be much difference. One quibble: The gap between points for a win and points for second in each race is too great. If a horse overcomes trouble or ground loss to finish second by a head or neck, should he really only receive half the points of the winner?
Senor Enrico More than 1 year ago
Simple system. Grade 1 worth 12-7-4 points Grade 2 worth 8-4-2 points Grade 3 worth 5-2-1 points Fillies races get ha;f the points. All races whether they are run as 2yo's or in another country count. So fillies can make it. A horse like Cananero II would get in. Imagine if Arazi was the real deal and would have been excluded from the Derby after what was the most immpressive race I ever saw in the Juvenile? That can't happen but under this system it would!
SINNtilator More than 1 year ago
I have long been in favor of some type of points system deciding the starters for the Derby but the initial system they have set in place I believe has more than a couple of flaws. Why the disparity in the races run up to this point and now the winner gets 5 TIMES more points starting tomorrow to win Grade 2 races. So you're telling me that the F.O.Y. and Risen Star are worth 5 times more than the Lecomte, Holy Bull, Southwest Stakes, Sham, etc.? Not to mention the BC Juvenile. I just hope that a deserving horse does not get left out of the Derby b/c of this pts setup b/c to be honest, I think it's been 9 years since a deserving horse(s) were not able to get in the Derby. Eddington and Rock Hard Ten were left out in 2004 and they woulda gotten in if they had the AE's back then they have now. Hmmm, come to think of it, maybe the old system wasn't so bad after all...
TAFKAB More than 1 year ago
I must agree with Andy Beyer, the formost turf writer of the past half century, that the new Derby eligibiity rules are a significant improvement over previous ones. However, I also think that further improvements are in order. Success of the Kentucky Derby is essential not only for Churchill Downs Incorporated, but for the long-term future of American thoroghbred racing. In addition to the remaining Triple Crown events, the Breeders' Cup World Championship Series and many other events at sundry American venues gain or lose because of this single race. Since the entire "industry" (I find that term distasteful, albeit accurate) is inextricably linked to the Derby, it is in EVERYBODY'S best interest to make this event as good as it possibly can be. Much better COOPERATION among the various racing interests is necessary to reverse the decline of the sport in North America. Or is everybody pefectly "okay" with Europe, Dubai, Latin America and Australia taking complete control? To begin with, CDI must agree to give up its ABSOLUTE control over all aspects of the race. CDI should not be the only entity to decide which races at which tracks should contribute "points" to the Derby eligibility count. The obvious favoritism shown to tracks owned/controlled by CDI does not redound to their credit. All stakeholders, including those like DRF and Equibase and maybe even ORDINARY HORSEPLAYERS ought to have some say in the matter. I have long thought that limiting the Kentucky Derby field to twelve would be a genuine improvement. Not only would this increase the liklihood of a Triple Crown Winner, but should boost interest in all related events both preceeding and following the Derby. (The "chaos factor" in races having greater than twelve runners increases geometrically, or, perhaps, even exponentially.) An authentic Triple Crown Champion is long overdue and could only help our beleaguered sport.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Turfwriter? You are very generous to a schlub who does nothing but tout himself. PT Barnum got away with the same act.
Greg Rouch More than 1 year ago
Their race, their track, their rules. Anyway, they have already made it clear that they are open to input and to refinement in the rules.
Nathan More than 1 year ago
what's the difference. the track is hardly fast on derby day. mudders.
Roger Haynos More than 1 year ago
I have long been disappointed by the fact horses running and winning on synthetic and grass surfaces were given preference over true dirt horses because of grades stakes money. I also get that many people just want the prestige of running in the Derby. I however have never thought there was any prestige in losing by 27 lengths no matter how great the purse or the race.
hialeah More than 1 year ago
Hi Andy, Thanks for the insight, and I'd just mention, that Violence despite never having run better than a 92 BSF has improved each race and if that trend continues should at least be tough tomorrow.