06/15/2012 3:45PM

Crist: Kentucky Derby qualifying plan a good start, but needs adjustments

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Barbara D. Livingston
Mine That Bird, the 2009 Kentucky Derby winner, might have been excluded from the Derby field under the new qualifying system.

There is an old proverb that “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” So is the new “Road to the Kentucky Derby” system of qualifying horses for America’s most famous race.

The program, a four-tiered point system covering 36 prep races, is an attempt to rectify some unfair aspects of the previous method, under which the race was open to the 20 entrants with the highest purse earnings in all graded stakes. There were several problems with that approach: races for 2-year-olds and sprinters were overvalued; slots-fueled purses at some venues inflated the importance of mediocre races; and fillies were provided too easy a path to the starting gate by being allowed to rack up earnings in races that exclude males. For more than a decade, critics had been calling for a point-based rather than earnings-based system that would reward performance in the most important prep races and better distinguish an important Grade 1 race from an inflated race of lesser quality.

The new plan, announced Thursday by Churchill Downs, was a sincere and partially successful attempt to remedy some of these problems. What Churchill presented, however, was an over-reaching and sometimes self-serving plan that introduces new inequities, ones that would have probably kept Derby runners ranging from Arazi, the 4-5 Derby favorite in 1992, to Mine That Bird, the 50-1 Derby winner in 2009, out of the starting gate.

The new system puts 36 designated prep races into four categories and awards qualifying points as follows: The first 19 races, run between September and February, are worth 10, 7, 4, and 1 points to the first four finishers; the next eight preps, mostly Grade 2 races in March, have a 50-20-10-5 point scale; then there are seven big final prep races worth 100, 40, 20, and 10 points to the top four; finally, two “wild card” races, the Lexington and Derby Trial, are worth 20, 8, 4, and 2 points.

A lot of it works, but there are new glaring problems with serious ramifications. The biggest is the devaluing of the most important races for 2-year-olds. Winning the Grade 1, $2 million Breeder’s Cup Juvenile used to guarantee a Derby berth, but now gets a horse only 10 points, the same as victory in the Grade 3 Withers on the Aqueduct winter track, the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate, or the Grade 3 Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn. Churchill estimates it will take about 40 points to qualify for the Derby.

It gets worse. Winning the race that usually crowns the champion 2-year-old is now worth one-fifth as much as the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds or the Tampa Bay Derby. This is utterly preposterous, and if Churchill makes no other change to this plan, it should immediately recast the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile as a 50-point race and consider raising 2-year-old fixtures such as the Champagne and Norfolk to 20-point status.

Where Churchill went wrong here was in trying to create these four tiers based on chronology rather than the logical importance of individual events, with race values rising from 10 to 50 to 100 points based solely on the calendar. The Sunland Derby is not five times more important than the Champagne, and the Louisiana Derby is not 10 times more important than the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Churchill also clearly and heavy handedly is trying to promote properties that it owns at the expense of tradition and common sense. The seven 100-point races are the five existing Grade 1 preps – the Florida, Arkansas, and Santa Anita derbies, the Wood Memorial, and the Blue Grass – as well as the U.A.E Derby in Dubai and the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby at Churchill-owned Fair Grounds. The timing, grade, and quality of the Louisiana Derby are squarely Grade 2 and 50-point territory, but Churchill has decreed it a virtual Grade 1 to promote participation and increase field size in a race that it owns.

Churchill also looks petty by excluding the $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne entirely from this scheme. The official explanation is that the race falls in April and thus would have to be a 100-point race under the rigid calendar-based system. More suspicious minds would say that it also has something to do with the fact that Churchill-owned Arlington Park just had a bitter Chicago-area dates dispute with Hawthorne and that stripping its crosstown rival’s biggest race of any Derby-qualifying significance is payback. Forget the calendar – the Illinois Derby deserves to be either a 50-point race or at the very least a 20-point “wild card” event.

Kevin Flannery, Churchill’s president, said Thursday that track management – which made all its decision in-house and without consulting other tracks or organizations such as the Breeders’ Cup – was open to tinkering with the plan. Here’s hoping he meant that. The new plan is a good start and fixed some problems, but contains several serious mistakes.