03/07/2013 4:50PM

Jay Hovdey: Kentucky Derby point system a game-changer

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Giacomo (left) won the 2005 Kentucky Derby. But would he had even made it into the field under the current points system?

No one said there would be this much arithmetic in horse racing beyond odds, fractions, Beyer Figures, and beer prices. But here we are, on the brink of the final push to the Kentucky Derby, obsessively consulting point charts and point totals and projecting like crazed math majors on an all-night binge. My colleagues have picked up on the madness.

“Since a victory in 10 different 2-year-old stakes and nine early 3-year-old preps is worth a measly 10 points each, most Derby hopefuls have just two chances to earn enough points to make the field, which is limited to 20 starters with a projected cutoff of 40 points,” wrote Ed Fountaine this week in the New York Post.

[DERBY WATCH: Top 20 Kentucky Derby contenders with odds and video]

Here’s more. As Saturday dawns, with the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita and the Tampa Bay Derby up for grabs, there are 14 races still to run that offer 1,683 eligibility points for one of the 20 Kentucky Derby berths. I admire anyone who at this date can reasonably project a minimum point total needed to make the field, so let’s go ahead and figure on 40 until the ship has sailed.

It will sail, by the way, without some very good colts on board. Such is the nature of any rigid number system let loose into an environment as chaotic and improvisational as training young Thoroughbreds. And while past posting is hardly a legitimate way to take the measure of current trends, there is enough anecdotal data to indicate that racing history would be very different had a) 20-horse Derby fields always been the norm, and b) the present points system had determined those fields. For instance:

Genuine Risk, being a filly, did not compete in a race that would have been worth Derby points until she faced colts in the 1980 Wood Memorial. She finished third, beaten 1 1/2 lengths by Plugged Nickle and a head by Colonel Moran. Her total Derby points: 20.

Spend a Buck commenced the 1985 season with what would have been 2 Derby points courtesy of his third-place finish to Chief’s Crown and Tank’s Prospect in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. His path to the Kentucky Derby began with a third in the Bay Shore (0 points) then led through New Jersey, where he won jacked-up Robert Brennan purses in the Cherry Hill Mile on April 6 and the Garden State Stakes on April 20. There are no mile races among the seven contemporary events on the list in the vicinity of April 6, while April 20 falls in the current window of “wild card” races worth 20 points to the winner. Spend a Buck’s total: 22 points.

As a 2-year-old, Ferdinand finished third in the 1985 Hollywood (now CashCall) Futurity for 2 points, then finished second in the 1986 San Rafael (now Robert B. Lewis) Stakes for 4 points and third in the Santa Anita Derby. His total: 26 points.

Two starts after he ran for a $62,500 claiming tag, Charismatic would have earned 4 points finishing second in the 1999 El Camino Real Derby. He went on to be fourth in the Santa Anita Derby (10 points) before winning the “wild card” Lexington Stakes for a total of 34. Would that have been enough to run in the Kentucky Derby? We’ll see.

War Emblem’s victory in the 2002 Illinois Derby put him in the Kentucky Derby, in which he romped, but it wouldn’t do him a bit of good now, since the race did not make the points list. Mine That Bird won the 2008 Grey Stakes at Woodbine, worth 10 points on the list, and ran fourth in the 2009 Sunland Derby (5 points), which means the boys from New Mexico never would have bothered making that van ride to Louisville the following spring to watch the little gelding win at 50-1.

One could assume that trainers like LeRoy Jolley, Charlie Whittingham, and Wayne Lukas might have plotted a different course for their 3-year-olds had today’s points system been in place, or that Bob Baffert would never have okayed the purchase of War Emblem after the Illinois Derby unless a Kentucky Derby spot had been assured. Still, step on a butterfly and sometimes a dinosaur goes down. Derby history might have made a place for Rumbo, Stephan’s Odyssey, Bold Arrangement, Menifee, Proud Citizen and Pioneerof the Nile instead of the point-challenged heroes to whom they finished second.

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

In 2004, the leggy gray Giacomo tipped his mitt by finishing second to division champ Declan’s Moon in the CashCall Futurity. However, his performance in a series of early 2005 events emptied his bandwagon of all but the most fervently loyal. He was third in the Sham, second in the San Felipe, and fourth in the Santa Anita Derby, which put him right where trainer John Shirreffs wanted him – except for the fact his 36 points might have fallen short of a place in the gate.

“Really?” Shirreffs said. “No kidding? I haven’t been following the points system that closely. Sounds like one of these Nintendo games, where you look to grab points here and there to run up your total. Then can you jump from one level to the next. Who knows?”

The idea of turning trainers into gamers probably wasn’t part of the plan when Churchill Downs devised the new system, but the image is compelling. Would Shirreffs have zigged to a different venue with Giacomo – Sunland, or maybe Turfway – to assure a Derby start?

“I don’t think so,” he replied. “You only have so many opportunities to run and so many places, and the races have to be spaced.”

Of course, that’s easy for Shirreffs to say, especially after Giacomo beat Closing Argument and Afleet Alex in Kentucky at 50-1. The trainer could become a quick study of Derby points after saddling the lightly raced Cal-bred gelding Omega Star in the San Felipe against hot favorites Flashback and Goldencents. Bred and owned by Marty Wygod and Herman Sarkowsky, Omega Star began his career with Jimmy Jerkens in New York before coming west to win a maiden race on New Year’s Eve and then running second in the California Breeders’ Champion Stakes on Jan. 26, which also happened to be the deadline date for early Triple Crown nominations. He was nominated.

“He’s a very nice horse with a big stride, but he’s got an ambitious race in front of him,” Shirreffs said. “When you start going longer, you know a lot can happen in that last sixteenth of a mile.”

And that, when it comes to preparing a horse for the Derby, should be the most important point of all.

Bellwether4U More than 1 year ago
It smells bad...
MICHAEL More than 1 year ago
Seriously why all the fuss? Even Crist has an article about equal weights for the Derby prep races. The KD tradition is why it is what it is but c'mon now. Hardly anybody breeds or trains for the KD anymore. It is nothing more than a cavalry charge with 20 horses where the majority who attends are in the infield having a good time and oblivious who the horses are. Then somehow a horse shows promise as a classic distance horse, hardly anybody here in USA is interested breeding the horse. Off to Japan or other place they go. So IMO much ado about nothing.
BrandonLayer More than 1 year ago
If the Derby isn't a big deal in horse racing then nothing is. Much ado about nothing? As far as horse racing goes the Derby is the farthest away you'll get from "nothing". Tell me, if the Derby is "nothing" like you say, what in horse racing qualifies as "something"? The Derby is the biggest thing there is in horse racing by far. Attendence, money bet, TV ratings. The Derby is #1 in all catagories by a mile. And the majority who attend are not in the infield and there are people in the infield who watch the races too. Any any trainer who says he doesn't care about winning the Derby is a big fat lier.
MICHAEL More than 1 year ago
Did you read what I just posted? The KD is not what it used to be. Sure the attendance and all that jazz and buzz is still there. But hardly anybody gears to breeding or training for the KD let alone trying to win the triple crown. Yes the majority who attend are in the infield just having a good time. The rest are wearing their fancy clothes just it be seen. Hey who knows maybe in a few more years it will be shortened to 9 furlong!!
Wesley Wright More than 1 year ago
For the trainers and fans it is not madness, but "mathness." The best thing I like about the points system it that it eliminates the "sprinters" from the Derby. It is still possible for a sprinter to hold on for second in one of the 100 points race and make it into the Derby.
Bellwether4U More than 1 year ago
That was a dumb *** statement!!!...
Kyri Freeman More than 1 year ago
AIRC, deserving horses were left out by the graded stakes earnings rule also. I like this version better (though I think they should include the Illinois Derby). What I would like best, though, is if the field were reduced to 15. I think that would make for a more legitimate, formful race and increase the chances of a deserving Triple Crown winner. Right now, every year, several top contenders have too much trouble in the race to compete. With 15 horses there could still be trouble, but maybe not the total chaos of 20.
zerosumzen More than 1 year ago
We have plenty of races with fields of that size. The Derby is a bettor's paradise, the place where he can shoot for the moon by playing exotics he otherwise never would. A $1 superfecta in, I believe it was 2005, paid out $864 thousand.... Because of the unproven quality of these young horses, longshots come in all the time, and the money wagered on the race is astronomical. Why would you want to make this into a 'normal' race? A few weeks later you'll have what you want in the Preakness.
Bellwether4U More than 1 year ago
Spot on baby...that damn track was not designed to run 20 Horses @ time...try telling those clowns @ cdi that!!!...ty...
Ann Ferland More than 1 year ago
Points only matter if there are more than 20 are entered. Only 13 horses entered the 1980 Kentucky Derby, so Genuine Risk was in regardless of any points rule. Same thing with Spend a Buck - only 13 ran. Ferdinand's race had but 16 runners. Charismatic is the only one of those listed who MIGHT have missed out; but others in the field would have had fewer points, like the fillies Three Ring and Excellent Meeting and 19 started, so moot point.
Nick Kenyon More than 1 year ago
i would think its obvious by now but some have still not caught on as to how many points it will take to ensure a spot in the derby not just maybe get in but to ensure it. the # will have to be around 65 i would not want to be sitting on say 50 and still be wondering if i am getting in. i do not think you are going to get in with just 40 points its simple look at the remaining races and who is running that already has points to add to their totals. do the math and you will see that some of the future favorites wont even make the race i cant wait to see the faces of these people who came up with this new system. i think its time to get some people who will think this out better and use realistic scenarios shame on you chd youve really made a giant mess of the most important race of the year i hope you get whats coming to you never mind the embarrasment.
zerosumzen More than 1 year ago
It won't take 65 points. As long as less than seven horses have numbers that combine for more than 40 points (out of more than 1 race), a number of second place finishers from the 100 pt races, all with 40 points, are in. To get within the 20 available spots, and to break the tie, they need 1 extra point. So 41. But some with 40 may be in as well. That only changes if there are more than seven horses with numbers, from different races, that combine for more than 40 points. This is possible, but not likely.
zerosumzen More than 1 year ago
Horses with numbers under 40, or 41, can be in as well, but they depend on others. So a trainer wanting his horse in the Derby should focus on 41 points. Strategically, my hat's off to the trainers who got their horse 50 points in one of the early 50 point races. The 100 point races could have extremely strong fields, meaning that the horse will have to peak, when the trainer really wanted the horse to peak in the Derby. We'll see how strong those fields really are, of course, but the possibility is on the table.
scott More than 1 year ago
All of this talk of what would have happened in previous derbies, who would have made it and who wouldn't is absolutely irrelevant. All of these owners and trainers would have run in the races required to get points and into past derbies. I agree the system is a little corrupt. I.E. Illinois derby absence. But the Derby is in better shape by eliminating the ones who have their spot in the gate guaranteed by a placing or two in 2 yr old stakes. I am yet to hear a trainer come out and say "I'm running in this prep, but I don't want to. I'm only running because of the points." There is no added element of danger. People were running for the graded $ anyways. On this day last year Sabercat and Trinniberg already were assured their starting spots. This year they'd have no chance unless they really proved it in their final prep. (Trinni won one turn, Sabercat 3rd beat 10 in Ark. Derby) Trinni would have been most likely beat two turns and Sabercat wouldnt have made it. Anyone who says this past derby winner had only so many points better come out and say how many it took to get into that year's derby. Dont just give us a low number of a past winner who lost his prep. (which is fine, gotta win the big one) Above Hovdey says 'Ferdinand only had 26'....well what did it take that year? was it oversubscribed? No kidding Baffert wouldnt have okay the purchase of War Emblem if the horse was just going to be pointed for the Preakness. A couple 2 yr old races should be 20 to winner, not 10, and add in Illinois derby. End of story.
BrandonLayer More than 1 year ago
The following Derby races have produced the most Derby winners since 1985. The first number is how many Derby winners the race has produced since 1985 and the second number is how many Derby points the race is worth to the winner. Santa Anita Derby, 8, 100 Florida Derby, 7, 100 Blue Grass, 6, 100 San Felipe, 6, 50 B.C. Juvenile, 5, 10 CashCall Futurity, 5, 10 Arkansas Derby, 4, 100 Wood Memorial, 4, 100 Fountain of Youth, 3, 50 Robert B. Lewis, 3, 10
Marshall Lowe More than 1 year ago
Interesting chart, but the first number is how many horses ran in these races and won the Derby, NOT how many winners of these races won the Derby. In fact, most of the Derby winners from the Wood, ARK, S.A., and B.G. did not win the prep.
BrandonLayer More than 1 year ago
The Juvy has had 4 horses who lost go on to win the Derby and only one horse who won go on to win the Derby. So in the Juvenile look for the horses who didn't actually win but will improve with age and distance.
Ann Ellerkamp More than 1 year ago
I think I'm going to like it. It forces the Pletchers and Zitos of the racing world to actually run in races that might FINALLY get their horses in shape for the Derby. They have to stay away from allowance "walkovers" !!!!
Wesley Wright More than 1 year ago
I agree. A good horse will get in the Derby even if he/she runs a couple of bad races. The trainers don't need to be rocket scientists to figure out which races to enter their horses in in order to get enough points. I am tired of watching the Derby prep races with 5-8 starters.
george pelyak More than 1 year ago
One complaint I always had was trainers dodging one another and the short fields in the derby preps. I would like to see a point system with the points for each race decided after the race. A formula could probably be worked out that awarded points based on the horses in the race. Why should a race with 1 graded winner and a bunch of maiden winners be worth as much as a race loaded with graded winners? I just think the points should be awarded according to the number of horses in the race and what they have done. Probably just wishful thinking on my part. http://backstretchtalks.blogspot.com/