03/27/2013 3:28PM

Kentucky Derby points system doing the job

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Tom Keyser
Shanghai Bobby, last year’s champion 2-year-old male, goes into the Florida Derby with a mere 24 Kentucky Derby qualifying points despite having won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Champagne Stakes, and having finished second in the Holy Bull.

NEW ORLEANS – When Churchill Downs announced last year that it was changing the format to determine eligibility to the 2013 Kentucky Derby, from many quarters, not the French, it was tantamount to having Mardi Gras end on a Monday, or removing the powdered sugar from the beignets at Café du Monde.

Now, as the May 4 Derby draws ever closer, the new points system is undergoing further examination, its pros and cons hotly debated, frequently without great thought, for it seems change in racing usually brings about a knee-jerk reaction, rather than sober, rational analysis (see Lasix, Breeders’ Cup).

But a deeper examination of where things stand right now, on the eve of the most lucrative Derby preps – including the Louisiana Derby here at Fair Grounds on Saturday – shows that the points system, which replaced graded stakes earnings as the criteria to determine the Derby field if more than the maximum 20 enter, is operating largely as intended, rewarding performances closer to the Derby, and swelling field sizes of preps.

[DERBY WATCH: Top 20 contenders and video | Who's hot, who's not]

The Louisiana Derby, for instance, drew a full field of 14, and the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park drew a field of 10. Both races will be run Saturday, as will the United Arab Emirates Derby in Dubai. All three are worth 170 points overall, including 100 to the winner, and 40 for second.

[LOUISIANA DERBY: Get Fair Grounds PPs, watch video previews]

There are horses certainly penalized under the new system, most notably Shanghai Bobby, last year’s champion 2-year-old male, who goes into the Florida Derby with a mere 24 points despite having won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Champagne Stakes, and having finished second in the Holy Bull. Under the old system, Shanghai Bobby already would be in the Derby, having amassed more than $1.7 million in graded earnings. Under the new points system, he likely needs to climb higher in the rankings to be assured of a berth.

Itsmyluckyday, who won the Holy Bull, would have had $250,000 under the old system, likely enough to be in the field. Instead, he goes into the Florida Derby with just 10 points, so he has to perform well or he’s out.

[FLORIDA DERBY: Get PPs, watch Saturday's full card live]

The sympathy for those horses is understandable. But for every Shanghai Bobby or Itsmyluckyday, there’s Capo Bastone or He’s Had Enough, who earned a ton of money at age 2 but have not performed as well at age 3, putting their Derby starting status in grave danger.

Capo Bastone has $251,500 in graded earnings, but a mere 4 points. He’s Had Enough, who is in the UAE Derby, has $442,000 in graded earnings – largely through his second-place finish in the BC Juvenile – but has just 6 points.

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

Under the old system, He’s Had Enough would certainly have enough money to make the top 20, and Capo Bastone likely would have made the cut, too. Now, if they don’t make it with points, their spots will go instead to horses with superior recent form.

In most cases, though, the switch from graded earnings to points simply hasn’t mattered. Horses still need to perform well in the richest preps, be it races worth 170 points overall, or $1 million, like the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby and Grade 1 Florida Derby.

“Whether money or points, you still need a horse who’s good enough,” trainer Al Stall Jr., who has both Departing and Sunbean in the Louisiana Derby, said at his Fair Grounds barn on Wednesday morning. “If you deserve to be in, you’ll be in. If either of my horses win, they’ll have 100 points. But if they run second, they’ll have 40 points, which will be close, just like $200,000, which you get for second, would have been close with earnings.

“What the points system did was minimize the earlier races. It used to be that you ran second in the Delta Jackpot and you were practically in the Derby.”

To be sure, late-developing horses have a better chance under the new system, because there’s less ground to make up, and no spots already claimed by winners of rich 2-year-old races like the BC Juvenile and Delta Jackpot.

“The points system is probably a benefit to my horse,” Michael Stidham, the trainer of Louisiana Derby entrant Ground Transport, said Wednesday. Ground Transport has raced three times, with two wins. The Louisiana Derby is his stakes debut.

“He has no graded money,” Stidham said. “If he wins, he’s right in. He’s training as good as you’d want coming into this race, so I guess we’re going to find out all at once.”

That’s one of the reasons the Louisiana Derby drew such a big field. Of the 14 runners, the highest point total at present belongs to Code West, the Risen Star runner-up, with 20. Revolutionary and Palace Malice have 10 each. No one else is in double figures.

It’s essentially like the NCAA basketball tournament. Recent results, not seedings or reputation, are what matter. The equine versions of Florida Gulf Coast University advance, and the versions of UCLA go home.

In other Derby developments:

◗ Revolutionary was made the 3-1 favorite for the Louisiana Derby by Mike Diliberto of Fair Grounds. Code West is next at 9-2, with Palace Malice 5-1. Revolutionary drew well, landing post 3 in the 1 1/8-mile race. Code West has post 8, Palace Malice 2.

◗ A field of 10 was entered on Wednesday in the Florida Derby, including highly ranked Derby Watch members Itsmyluckyday, Orb, and Shanghai Bobby.

◗ Titletown Five worked a half-mile in 48.80 seconds on Wednesday at Oaklawn before traveling to Fair Grounds for the Louisiana Derby.

War Academy, a recent allowance winner at Santa Anita, will make his next start in the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 13, trainer Bob Baffert said. Mike Smith has the mount. Den’s Legacy, third in the Rebel last time out, will also return to Oaklawn for the Arkansas Derby for Baffert.