06/15/2012 2:15PM

Hovdey: Kentucky Derby process needs 20-20 vision

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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.”