06/15/2012 3:15PM

Hovdey: Kentucky Derby process needs 20-20 vision

Jenny Burgos
Twenty horses charge out of the starting gate on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.

“We sought in this Breeders’ Cup to create a Super Bowl of the sport.” – John Gaines, first chairman of Breeders’ Cup

“People understand that the Kentucky Derby is the Super Bowl of horse racing.” – Kevin Flanery, current president of Churchill Downs

“We hear all the time that Westminster is the Super Bowl of dog shows.” – David Frei, canine commentator, USA Network

Apparently the deck chairs on the Titanic needed rearranging – again. Word arrived this week that there would be a new system in 2013 to qualify for a place in one of the starting gates for the Kentucky Derby.

The immediate reaction – “What was wrong with the old system?” – betrayed an innocence that was touching. The point was not to fix something that was neither badly broken nor working particularly well. The point was to stir the chatter among the non-players and the fantasy-leaguers, to score headlines with a story of minimal impact, and to deflect once again from dealing with the most serious problem concerning the field for the Kentucky Derby – the unwritten mandate that 20 horses must run.

Churchill Downs chairman and CEO Bob Evans made no bones about the plan. “Our primary driving motive is to create new fans for horse racing,” Evans said.

There you go. It’s a public relations stunt, although a fairly complicated one, involving charts and graphs and mid-level math. Readers who need the details can find and enjoy them elsewhere – one news site referred to the tinkering as “one of the most significant changes in the 139-year history of the race” – but I couldn’t make it past the first event on the list of qualifying races, which is the Royal Lodge Stakes run each September for 2-year-olds over a straightaway mile at Newmarket. In England.

The Royal Lodge, offered since 1946, is named for a lodge owned by royals. The first Royal Lodge winner to run in the Kentucky Derby was Eltish, who finished sixth to Thunder Gulch in 1995 when trained by Bobby Frankel. The most recent was Daddy Long Legs, who was eased at Churchill Downs in 2012. There were none in between, although it would have been cool had the 2010 Royal Lodge winner made the trip. His name was Frankel, too.

Beyond the odd inclusion of a British event, there are a couple of thin silver linings to the changes in the selection process. The importance of 2-year-old racing is minimized, which is never a bad thing, even though some of the most durable classic colts have been tempered by competition early in their careers. Churchill Downs is also weaning itself from a slavish obeisance to the Graded Race System, as well as to the unreliable tyranny of money earnings.

Uncoupling Derby eligibility from the demand to win huge piles of money could taper the rampant inflation of million-dollar Derby preps that has thrown the sport out of balance. Bob Baffert, among others, worries that any purse cuts in quality races is a bad thing, and he has a point. But in a better world, with a broader view to the good of the entire game, perhaps some of those disproportionate sums dished out in Derby preps could be used to enhance the purses for top older horses, or fillies, or just about any division other than the 3-year-old males who suck all the air out of the game from January to June.

However, of all the changes that need to be made to the Kentucky Derby, field size remains the elephant in the room. Make that 20 elephants. Baffert hit the nail square when he proposed, only half joking, that eliminating the one hole would be the best thing anyone could do for the Derby.

At some point, if they haven’t already, representatives of Churchill Downs management should stand in the No. 1 stall of the starting gate as positioned for the start of the Derby. An imaginary debriefing might go like this:

Reporter: What did you see when you stood in that inside stall?

Imaginary Executive: Corporate hospitality tents, a beautiful turf course,

R: The rail – did you notice the curve of the rail right in front of you?

IE: Yes, it was white.

R: With 20 horses in two gates, the inside post requires the horse to veer outward to avoid running into the rail. Or suck back to last and wait until the coast has cleared.

IE: That’s the luck of the draw, isn’t it?

R: It also places a horse at an inescapable disadvantage before the race even starts.

IE: What would you suggest?

R: Limit the field to 14, the capacity of a single starting gate, positioned so that all 14 runners have a clean shot down the opening straightaway.

IE: But the Derby field allows for 20 runners. How can we tell people they can’t run in the Super Bowl of horse racing?

R: Fine. Then why not allow 25 starters? Thirty starters?

IE: Now you’re being ridiculous.

If nothing else, the changes in Derby qualifying underlines what has become increasingly evident. For those who own Thoroughbreds, winning races is the point of the exercise. But when it comes to the Derby, the goal is simply making it into the field. Once in it, they figure anything can happen.

The fuss of the tinkered qualifiers might be fun, but be aware that the effort will have absolutely no impact on the reality of the Derby itself, which is still the same messy, incident-ridden 20-horse stampede that produces far more sob stories that fairy tales. As Todd Pletcher said in reaction to the changes, lapsing into a Zen-like state, “I see the potential for this to leave out a good horse. Maybe, I’ll be proven wrong, but the previous system didn’t leave out the winner.”

MGropenSDREADER More than 1 year ago
The Derby ALREADY has some of the worst elements of the Super Bowl,e.g., the shutting out of ordinary, hard-core fans in favor of wealthy, know-nothing "celebrities."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If the One horse had to truely break outward then the track should be changed. I find it difficult to believe the one hole faces the rail, not open track. And again if the 2 and 3 also are at a disadvantage for some reason how about changing the width of the track on the front stretch. Then the gate can be set to give all horses clear run straight ahead. Of course there would still be all the fun that goes on at the break. Most breaks in racing are a tangle of "almost inquiry material" anyway. It is part of racing. Their not cars, they are horses. Loosing jockeys want the available excuses the event provides. But the Derby is great. 20 horses , great. If you think the track can't handle a gate of 20 change the track. Ray D.
Dorothy Ours More than 1 year ago
*Thank you* for describing the elephant in such a humorous but accurate way. After Lookin' At Lucky's near disaster, I went back through 50 years of Derby charts and saw that having an auxiliary gate on the track significantly increased troubled starts for post positions 1, 2, and 3 (the worst affected) as well as more crowding in some of the middle positions. And when War Admiral won from post 1 in a 20-horse field, not only did he have superior early foot -- the gate wasn't set as it is now. Instead, they had post 1 up near the inner rail and the gates angled slightly backward from there, so that the inside horses could get out. Twenty horses is a spectacle, all right, but the Churchill Downs track, unlike some of the extra-wide European courses, isn't made for it. Is it fair to overcrowd this once-in-a-lifetime classic and practically guarantee that some horse(s) will lose their chance for their best placing at the start or in traffic?
Cougar Paisley More than 1 year ago
What about the good two year olds who win Grade 1's and then are sent on the shelf because a slight injury. Your going to handcuff trainers, by forcing them to rush a horse back sooner than they should be. A great horse capable of winning the Derby may only need one start in his 3 year old return to the races. It does'nt mean he has to win his comeback race, just enough to move him forward. This point system will work against him or her. A re-thinking of this is in order.
[removed] More than 1 year ago
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chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Russell, The courses in Europe are much much wider than any tracks here in the USA. Envision the two turf courses at Belmont as one and that might give you some idea.
Stephen Hewlett More than 1 year ago
Jay, you've hit the nail squarely on the head with this one. This whole 3 yr old mania from January to June each year is a PR crock in my opinion. Almost every year the best horse in America is a member of the older handicap division, but these true stars of the game toil in relative anonymity. As to 20 starters for the KY Derby, that is more PR nonsense. The KY Derby is not designed to determine who the best 3 yr old in the land is on the first Saturday in May, it is designed to be a media extravaganza. The industry is driven by breeders and the quicker the turnarournd the better they like it.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Stephen, Let me 'Grade' your piece bottom to top... 'A' - - - 'A' - - - 'A+'. We gotta stop beating up on the babies.
Stephen Hewlett More than 1 year ago
Thanks Chad. It seems that horse racing has always been its own worst enemy.
dud dew More than 1 year ago
Jay: A good start, better than Steve C's strange gutwrench about two-year olds. Anything the game can do to move big prizes (and great temptation for the short-sighted) away from two-year old racing and toward older horses of proven long-term stamina and soundness works for me. The Derby not only has too many horses (I like 14; in the real world, I could live with 16, and a move away from the rail), it takes place at the wrong time in young horses' lives, at too sudden a climb in distance for most of them. If there have to be derbies, let them take place in the latter half of the year. Let the spring be about gradual increases in growth, strength, comfort on the track - and filled with classy "racing festivals" where horses would earn their stripes for that fall's classics on the very tracks the classics are now held. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Thoroughbred racing is broke, and the popular spring TC one-offs, in spite of their momentary media swagger, are an endemic part of the brokenness. A side note: two young very good three-year olds go neck and neck down the stretch in one of the Big Six (UAE Derby inclusion should be earned, not gifted), and one wins on a bob. Winner gets huge points, close second not so many. In another of those races, well-regarded member of the class wins for fun, ten lengths, same Beyer as the nose winner in the former battle. Second place horse in that race finishes in an undistinguished pack, but gets the same second-place points as the colt who showed speed and grit and a much higher figure, but lost by an unlucky stride. Fair? as the gritty near-winner.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Dud, The advent of the Breeders Cup squashed the Fall Highweights, that great set of stand-alone races that capped the Year. The world would stop to watch Forego run...
steve szymanski More than 1 year ago
Dud Dew..You had my attention until you made the bone-headed last comment that shows you can't handicap racing.
Bill Gross More than 1 year ago
The three year old with the most points should have first choice of post position in the Derby in descending order instead of the luck of the draw. Excellences should be rewarded.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
The draw and the shake have been here long time Bill, like from day 1. The reward is at the wire.
STARR D More than 1 year ago
Actually until a couple years ago, they were "picking" post positions. I forget when they went to that process but they stopped it I believe after the 2010 draw..... I liked it a lot better that way!
steve szymanski More than 1 year ago
.....And the guy with the highest batting average should get to hit against the highest ERA pitcher on the opposing team.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
To me the bigest joke in the new system is giving points for the Derby Trail while nothing for the Il. Derby. When was the last time we had a starter from the derby Trail ? Many years ago it was used, but not in quite a while, and if I missed one then surely it was not a winner. I remamber in I think 1966 or 67 a horse ran second in the Derby from the Trail. O almost forgot the Derby Trail is run at CD so maybe they are a little biased. LOL
steve szymanski More than 1 year ago
One of the last derby trial winners won the Derby/Preakness and broke down in the Belmont. Bet more. Thank you!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Crist's article addressed the problems with this CDI stunt. I like Jay, but this article is less about the problems and more about, to coin a phrase, rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.