03/07/2013 4:50PM

Jay Hovdey: Kentucky Derby point system a game-changer

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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.