03/27/2013 2:28PM

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.

daniel More than 1 year ago
This new point system should have been implemented 100 years ago.No more Giacamos.(That is a definite maybe).
Samson Severes More than 1 year ago
Baffert horse will not win
noalaistoday More than 1 year ago
That's a dumb comment!!! Which Baffert horse? In what race? Last time I looked he seems to win a lot of races.
JoyJackson21 More than 1 year ago
The new points system may be "working", but I still have reservations about it because it needs some major tweaking. It is my hope the Churchill Downs Corp. recognizes that there are still some large inequities they need to address and correct before horses starting trekking down the Derby road for the 2014 Derby/Triple Crown season.
Dave More than 1 year ago
I don't think there's a perfect system out there. But to me this points system has been a welcome change. This year, we're going to be closer to having the 20 best three-year-olds in the starting gate than in years past. For example, let's say He'd Had Enough is off the board in Dubai tomorrow and Shanghai Bobby does not win the Fla. Derby. In years past it wouldn't matter, they'd still be pointing to the Derby, but now (and this is good for the horses by the way) they'll be taken off the trail and be able to point to other races where they're more likely to win.
Tee Jay More than 1 year ago
And when they turn for home at Churchill, the story looks different than it did in the previous months. When they pass the finish line all thoughts of the point system vanish. "The Sprinters" owners and trainers will concede to their pre-Derby assumptions and go look for big paydays running short. The "Route Horse" owners and trainers will be gleeful at their chances and points be damned when the big money goes "long" for their new distance runner. How many horses have ever waited for a scratch to run in the Belmont? Nobody wants to go a mile and a half and look bad. "He'll be okay" said the big shot trainer after his horse faded in the Derby. "He grabbed his tongue coming down the lane but he'll do okay running shorter" Who wants to watch some sprint pedigrees get enhanced to endure 10 furlongs at Churchill in 2:03 and change? Who is out there waiting for the next legs? Let's wait for the "Derby Cut" when the owners and trainers come back down from orbit and decide to get real about their charges. Many will pack their vans and head back home to run on familiar surfaces. The Preakness is only two weeks after the Derby and most of the horses today are worked once a week and only run every 4 to 6 weeks. Mmmm? Lets' just wait until "Workout Wednesday" at Churchill when all the horses running in the Derby have their "traditional" workout even though they are of different physical specimens. No Friday blowouts anymore? Aw nuts.... I sure hope the blood counts indicate that all horses are ready for the first Saturday in May. I'd sure hate to get beat by the horse's metabolism because the trainer didn't wait for the blood count to be perfect. But that's a horse of a different color that we are not privy to but should be. Its still the same world famous Kentucky Derby and has nothing to do with greatness in the sport - it only brings in the dilettantes who like the hats and drinks and ..oh yeah...those things on the track with tails. Sorry to make fun of Bob Costas but I can't help myself
Edward More than 1 year ago
The funny part is that the horses are running 2:02 and 2:03 and change on a track that is souped to the nuts so they are really running even slower. The Beyer times have been gifts. There are more than 1 or 2 KD winners in the last 12 years that should have received 90-95 Beyer speed figures.
daniel More than 1 year ago
Yeah,send him and NBC packing and get a network more willing and ready to promote horse racing and not social causes.Vet them and make them do it the "old fashioned way;"earn it".
Jason Kassa More than 1 year ago
We haven't reached an equilibrium yet with the new point system. Some of the traditional preps are worth less now, and some are worth more. The trainers haven't adjusted yet to match the new system. It will take a little time. Then it will be roughly just as efficient as it used to be.
John McEvoy More than 1 year ago
Any time an obscure English two-year-old turf race rewards points and the Hawthorne Derby, producer of Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem, is disregarded, adds up to both nonsense and no-sense.
Oz Nelson More than 1 year ago
Good point taken or points let me retract all and say add the Illinois Derby.
Oz Nelson More than 1 year ago
I think the comments were very informative. The first segment of points were very low. They should have been at least 20 for the win and so on like the Lexington. I'm not a rocket scientist but when I look at the 3 different point segments I know on an IQ test it would ask which segment looks incorrect in this graduated point system and what should be the correct answer? Dah 25 Mr. Rogers, 20 or 25 points would have been of help to minimized the criticism. Alll 3 yr. old graded stakes should be included. I know ,I know the Lesley Gore song Mr.Churchill " It's MY PARTY AND I'LL DO WHAT I WANT TOO I'LL DO WHAT I WANT TOO". Yes Mr.Churchill it is your party but either way but I'll still show up, I wouldn't miss it for the world.
Wayne Crimi More than 1 year ago
I think the system should award points on a weighted basis by Grade/Distance/Surface instead of earnings or a subjective (potentially politically motivated) point system made up by a committee. For example, the BC Juvenile and Champagne (both Grade 1 routes on dirt) are obviously more significant than some of the lower graded 3YO preps that have generated more points. Winning a Grade 1 or 2 route on dirt is clearly more significant than winning one at a sprint or on turf/synthetic etc... The system would be self correcting as the Grades, surfaces, distances, scheduling etc.. changed over time.
Horse Cents More than 1 year ago
I've been trying to argue the case for adjusting for graded status for a while now. The sprints and early races are taken care of and only a few synthetics thrown in. Not a big problem But, graded status is ignored. The pont system was to temper the affect of exaggerated purses but doesn't work if graded status in not accounted for. The grade 3 Spiral was weak, and the grade 3 Sunland Derby was weakest of all, but still worth the same as the Grade 2, Tampa Bay Derby, Fountain of Youth, etc. And of course the Grade 1 BC Juvenile is far superior to the other grade 3's. The adjustment should be made within each grouping.
Tee Jay More than 1 year ago
Or entirely throw out the "graded system of stakes races" that was developed for the sales catalog. If anything, the grading of a race should take place AFTER the race has run. Time and competition can be duly judged posthumously by the numbers makers. The only thing that counts is the money in your pocket when walking BACK from the wickets and not BEFORE while walking to the wicket. The same can apply to the grading of horse races.
Horse Cents More than 1 year ago
To my knowledge, and I could be wrong, but I believe that is what they do. They review the previous year, and put out the list of graded stakes for the coming year. No doubt, a race like the Sunland Derby which is grade 3 should not even be graded, but they seem to give a grade to those willing to put up big money deserved or not and even though a very poor field will remain grade 3.
russell More than 1 year ago
Michael you are correct. A horse that wins the BC Juvenile or the Champagne deserve at least 25 points. And the 2 year-old champion should be an automatic qualifier.
Tee Jay More than 1 year ago
Who dat be in thar? Grade One horses or not??? Wearing your best suit to a wedding won't make it the best wedding...other factory workers and peons are dressed up too for the groom's funeral.