04/16/2015 12:01PM

Crist: Politics hamstring Derby points system


The end of the Kentucky Derby prep season last week marked the third year where Derby berths have been secured under the new points system announced in 2012. On the whole, it has worked well, providing a clearer and more cohesive path to Louisville than the graded-stakes-earnings plan it replaced.

Some tweaking, however, still needs to be done. The same glaring inequities that existed when the plan was unveiled still exist and should be addressed – especially in those cases where decisions have clearly been made to serve Churchill Downs’s corporate self-interest rather than fairness or sport.

The first problem is with the treatment of 2-year-old races, which are not worth enough points and lumped together as if there is no difference among them. Winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is worth only a measly 10 points, the same as every other 2-year-old race and the same as you get for finishing third in the Sunland Park Derby or fourth in the Louisiana Derby.

This self-serving idea that the road to the Derby magically begins with Churchill’s own 10-point, Grade 3 Iroquois – as opposed to the zero-point, Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity and Grade 1 Hopeful – is preposterous, as is the notion that the Iroquois is as important as the Champagne, FrontRunner, and Breeders’ Futurity, much less the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

No winner of the Juvenile should ever be excluded from a Derby, and the race should be worth the same 50 points as second-tier 3-year-old races such as the Risen Star and Tampa Bay Derby. As things now stand, you get twice as many points for a second-place finish in those races as you do for winning the Juvenile.

Here’s a hypothetical case that shows that these disparities are more than cosmetic. Let’s say that last year’s Juvenile winner, Texas Red, were still trying to make the Derby field instead of standing on the sidelines. He concluded his 2-year-old campaign with only 12 points. Suppose he had recovered more quickly from his injury and returned with a useful fifth-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby. His 12 points would leave him in 31st place on the list of horses currently being pointed for the Derby in two weeks.

The problem here and elsewhere is the fiction that there are three tidy, distinct periods of Derby preps and all the races within those periods are of equal value. The truth is that some November races are more important than others, just as some March races are more important than others. Using the calendar alone to set the boundaries is simply wrong.

This issue comes up again with the final round of races, worth 100 points to the winner. There should be five such events – the Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass, Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, and Wood Memorial. These are the five Grade 1 races in the division before the Derby. Churchill Downs, however, unjustly elevated the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby and the Group 2 United Arab Emirates Derby to the same status as those five. Churchill Downs owns and operates Fair Grounds, the site of the Louisiana Derby.

Of all of Churchill’s self-serving moves – denigrating the rival Breeders’ Cup and overvaluing its own races such as the Iroquois and Louisiana Derby – possibly the worst is the vindictive exiling of the once-important Illinois Derby at Hawthorne. For no apparent or announced reason other than that Churchill Downs owns Arlington, Hawthorne’s rival in the Chicago market, Churchill simply decreed that the Illinois Derby is no longer a Kentucky Derby prep. Despite a purse level and history suggesting it would be more important than many of the 35 other races on the official prep lineup, we’re supposed to believe that Churchill’s ownership of Arlington has nothing to do with its exclusion.

This sort of corporate revenge has no place in the run-up to the nation’s most famous horse race. Churchill is rightfully pleased with the overall performance of the new system, but that does not mean that some its remaining deficiencies should not be remedied, or that one of them won’t create an ugly situation in the future.