01/17/2013 5:10PM

Road to the Kentucky Derby has a new map

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Tom Keyser
Shanghai Bobby won three graded stakes as a 2-year-old, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but is not assured a spot in the Kentucky Derby.

Shanghai Bobby has won the Hopeful Stakes, the Champagne Stakes, and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and is the overwhelming favorite to be named champion 2-year-old of 2012 when the Eclipse Awards are held Saturday, Jan. 19, at Gulfstream Park. Yet in terms of eligibility for the May 4 Kentucky Derby, this accomplished, decorated colt is a mere 20 points in front of horses who have never even raced.

After more than 25 years of using graded stakes earnings as the criterion for entry to oversubscribed fields for the Derby, Churchill Downs has switched to a system based on points, one that discounts 2-year-old form and turf races, eliminates sprints and races restricted to fillies, and puts a premium on the final two rounds of Derby preps, beginning in late February.

Cash is no longer king. It’s a new world, with nuances that trainers with Derby prospects are seeking to comprehend.

“The approach I’m taking is that I’m trying not to worry too much about it,” said Todd Pletcher, who trains Shanghai Bobby and several other top Derby contenders, such as Overanalyze and Violence. “You have to manage your horse the way you normally would and hope you earn enough points to get in.”

That said, Pletcher – who won the Derby with Super Saver in 2010 – realizes that a subpar race close to the Derby could be catastrophic.

“You certainly don’t want that if you don’t have enough points,” Pletcher said. “A lot of horses have flopped in their final Derby prep and gone on to win the Derby. The key is to have enough points before the flop.”

[MORE: Kentucky Derby prep schedule | Kentucky Derby point standings]

Under the new system, the Florida Derby is one of seven races offering the maximum amount of points to the Derby. Those races are worth 170 points, with 100 to the winner, 40 to second, 20 to third, and 10 to fourth. In years past, Pletcher said he figured about $200,000 in graded earnings usually was needed to make the Derby, which is restricted to 20 runners. He thinks the equivalent now will be about 40 points. But like everyone else, he’s guessing.

“The way the program was set up before, if you finished 1-2-3 in that final round of preps, and you had earned something else along the way, you were in, and it might be close to the same now,” Pletcher said. “If the same group of horses is earning points, you might have six to eight with 200 points, and then a big drop off. It’s hard to get a line on what the magic point number will be, the number that will be what $200,000 in earnings was before. I’m guessing 40 points or so, but I don’t know.”

No one does.

“I think it’s going to take a couple of years for trainers to fully grasp this,” said Rick Hammerle, racing secretary at Santa Anita, whose Santa Anita Derby is one of the races offering 100 points to the winner.

The most significant change is that not a single spot in the Derby field is already taken. In the past, the winners of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, CashCall Futurity, and Delta Downs Jackpot would already have enough cash to make the Derby field. Now, because the final round of preps are so much more important, there is the likelihood that many more trainers will point to those races, and their field sizes will swell.

“No question,” said Nick Zito, a two-time Derby winner. “If you want to participate in the Derby, you have to backload it. You have to be careful which prep you go in, because you could blow it all in one race.

“But if you win the Fountain of Youth,” Zito said, referring to one of eight Derby preps worth 50 points to the winner, “you’re probably in. If you get to Florida Derby Day without enough points, you could blow your chance. But if you run second in the Florida Derby, you’re probably in.”

The importance of the final round of prep races also might force trainers to think about shipping to a wider range of locales for opportunities to accumulate the most points.

“I think you will see some horses go west who normally would have stayed in the East,” Zito said.

“Before the Breeders’ Cup, there’s not a lot of movement with the 2-year-olds,” Hammerle said. “For the most part, the New York horses stay in New York, the Kentucky horses stay in Kentucky. I think this might encourage trainers to head somewhere else to take a shot at points.”

[DRF WEEKEND: History challenge, handicapping reports, horses to watch]

Having multiple Kentucky Derby prospects is a position that Pletcher has been in several times. Might he be more inclined to try to divide and conquer rather than have multiple runners in the same race?

“If that comes up, I’ll have a discussion with each individual owner,” he said. “You lay out the options – ‘Do you want to run against him, or run here or there?’ That part won’t be different. As a trainer, I always like to take as many shots as possible. Now maybe an owner might look and see he needs more points and adjust.”

The flip side to having so much emphasis on the final round of preps is that awaiting those races could result in a large gamble. One false step, and you’re out. As of now, Shanghai Bobby is scheduled to run in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream on Jan. 26 and then the Florida Derby on March 30. Those will be his only opportunities to earn additional points. It’s a risk Pletcher has discussed with the Starlight Racing principals, Jack Wolf and Don Lucarelli.

“I’ve talked this over with them,” Pletcher said, “and if we don’t have enough points to get into the Derby, we’ll just go to the Preakness. Life goes on.”

Other trainers say they are thinking about sneaking in one more prep race to try to accumulate more points. As of now, trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. said he is thinking of sending out Gulfstream Park Derby winner Itsmyluckyday against Shanghai Bobby in the Holy Bull.

“If he wins the Holy Bull, is that enough?” Plesa said. “I don’t know. So I might have to run him more often than I’d prefer. Ideally, I’d like to run him twice more, including the Holy Bull. I think it’s important to have a fresh horse. But what’s ideal for my horse might not be what gets him into the Derby, so I have to sort through that.

“I don’t know why they messed with it to begin with,” Plesa said. “It worked fine for years. We were experienced with what needed to be done.”

Churchill made the decision to move from graded stakes earnings to a points system in large part to take control of its signature race, according to Darren Rogers, the track’s senior director of communications and media services and one of the architects of the new system.

[KENTUCKY DERBY NEWS ON TWITTER: Follow @DRFDerby for updates]

“We have an historic race, but we had little to no control over who gets in,” Rogers said. “We think this respects the old system, in terms of the importance of the major preps, and improves on it. It was not an easy process. But we’re happy and comfortable with the end result.”

Greater significance will be placed on current form. And emphasizing the final weeks of prep races, Rogers said, should help hold fan interest because the horses who run well in those races are the ones who will make up the Derby field.

“Our main focus is the 10-week Derby Championship Series that leads to the first Saturday in May,” he said. “This is a step in the right direction.”

No longer will a sprinter be able to glean graded earnings by staying in one-turn races until Derby Day, nor will a filly be able to accumulate graded earnings in races restricted to females, two flaws in the graded earnings era that have been eliminated. Sprinters and fillies can still try to make the Derby, but only by running against all comers in races at a mile or farther.

Those permutations could impact the pace of Derby preps and the Derby itself. A sprinter whose connections want to run in the Derby now has to test the Derby waters in a prep, potentially impacting the pace of that prep.

“That’s a good point,” Pletcher said. “A horse like Trinniberg couldn’t just run in the Bay Shore.”

And if a horse like that does not perform well in the prep and does not go on to the Derby, the Derby could unfold with a more moderate pace.

This is the first year of the new system, and Rogers emphasizes that it is only a step. The road to the Derby is likely to be adjusted for the 2014 race. There are plenty of suggestions on ways to improve the system. Bob Baffert, a three-time Derby winner, said that while the final rounds of preps basically are akin to the "Win and You’re In" program of the Breeders’ Cup, he wishes Churchill Downs would go further and have winners of those races get their entry fees paid, similar to the Breeders’ Cup.

Baffert said he is concerned that, by going to a points system, tracks in the future might be inclined to slightly reduce the purse money offered for their key preps.

“I don’t have a problem with them going to points as long as these $1 million races stay $1 million,” he said.

Pletcher said he would like to see the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile be worth more than races that serve as preps to it, such as the Breeders’ Futurity, Champagne, FrontRunner, and Grey.

“I said this before the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, so it’s not like I’m saying this because of Shanghai Bobby, but juvenile racing doesn’t carry enough weight, especially the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile,” Pletcher said. “The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner should not have to worry about accumulating more points.”

For now, though, he does.

“We’re constantly looking at tweaks − how do we make the road better?” Rogers said. “The goal is this − we’re trying to get the best field to go a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May.”

77_main More than 1 year ago
The Derby will have a tougher field this year, us handicappers may find the payoffs more to our liking.
Rick Nelson More than 1 year ago
After reading alot of comments I must say the graded system was much better,40 points may get you a bag of oats or a tie for 19th or 20th position on 4-14-13.But wait don't put your horse on a plane or trailer just yet,there a full field of horses for the LEXINGTON (4-20-13)and maybe the DERBY TRIAL(4-27-13) with 21 to 40 points in there saddle already. HI HO SILVER AND AWAY THEY GOOOOO.
Stan More than 1 year ago
i love the point system. running in the same races to get there is the only fair way to do it. fillys and turf horses still have a chance to go thay just have to prove thay belong before thay get there.
Haydn More than 1 year ago
The Juvy winner should get a secure spot only one winner has also taken the Derby.
saratogajunkie More than 1 year ago
This is a reply to Tony below and my thoughts as well. I think you answered your own questions when it comes to fame and money, there seems to be no risk not worth taking when it comes to the fame (and money) the Derby brings. I have some reservations of the new point system, and with this being the first year maybe they will need to tweak it to be inclusive of races abroad. (They should but I do believe the Dubai race is included) Time will tell! but I do agree in principal with the point systems concept...no more automatic entry if you win the Delta Downs Millions race as a TYO, though I do think more respect (points) should be awarded to the Breeders Cup Juv. but then again maybe thats the whole concept, making a two year olds record less important will cause some owners/trainers to bring their two year olds along more slowly.
Monique St.Germain More than 1 year ago
Give churchill downs a bullet Im sure they would shoot themselves in the foot all just to bury the competition ,nothing to do with the good of the sport
Steve S More than 1 year ago
Agreed. They could put their ambition to better use by improving the fuzzy video on their wagering site, for starters :/
B More than 1 year ago
What was wrong with the old way? I don't remember many horses not getting in that should have. Good fillies participating has always added more interest to the race, so why this decision to make it more difficult for them to enter is a bit baffling to me.
glen More than 1 year ago
This new points system automatically wipes out the chances of the English, French, Irish and or Japanese from competiting in the Kentucky Derby. Would anyone venture to analyse what points system will be used for those horses to be eligible?
Gary More than 1 year ago
BC winners,and Europe's finest seldom do well,so why have them?
glen More than 1 year ago
Does this now mean that the English, Irish and French horses will not qualify, because it means they will have to earn points in the stated races. Does anyone know what point system is being used for those countries. It means the Sheik will now have to send their charges across to the USA very early.
Tony Fortunelli More than 1 year ago
My thoughts on the point system is that it is likely to cause young horses to have to race more in order to qualify for the Derby. These animals are delicate enough as indicated by the good 3 year olds that fell by the wayside due to injuries this year. Bodemeister was a late developer and pushed along and but for some significant wins would not have been in the Derby, and yet he brought alot of enthusiasm and interest to the sport, and people came out to the track. To diminish the value of the races worth the most points by the race track on which they are run is narrow minded all around. No one outside of thoroughbred racing would be interested in a $25,000 race, even if the winner got 100 points. The fans like to see horses run for big money ... that's what excites them and that's what draws the horses that cause the excitement. It seems unintelligent that those involved with the Derby would want to restrict the entrants. Are they so in need of international recognition or more money that they are willing to cut their nose despite their faces? How are they going to value international races to encourage French, English, Japanese and/or Australian entrants? Do they think the other countries are all going to bend just to accommodate the Americans? That absurd, and consistent with the feelings of many of international owners and breeders already. The Kentucky Derby is a legend in itself. Seldom does a horse of low quality win the race, although saying that horses in the past 10 years have not been sterling examples of my statement. Look back to the 40's and 50's and the horses that ran then. Swaps was from California and many of his records for various distances held up for 20 years or so. No one is going to get close to Secretariat's Belmont time with the way breeders are breeding their stock. Early speed and exceptional early 2 year olds are not the answer to the Derby situation. Horsemen need to go back to some old principals, realizing that inbreeding is not the way... it hasn't been in humans ... so why think differently about equines. Where are the Kelsos, John Henrys, Round Tables or some of the famous horses that ran 50 or more races. Sound horses should be a goal. I realize that it costs alot of money to train a horse and therefore to have significant purses early in the horses career is enticing, but is not good for the breed. A magnificent 2 yr old is often wasted by the time the Derby comes around. More disappointing is that so many young horse with what seems like great potential are injured or put down because they have been rushed along when there bones and body mass are still developing. The big picture doesn't need to be from the get-go, who is going to win they Derby. It should center around how to develop the best horse with the breeding resources available and improve the breed in the long run. American owners. and trainers seem overly concerned about the money and not the value of the animal itself. Perhaps I am being naive about this. I have been a thoroughbred horse enthusiast since 1954 and have seen alot of really spectacular horses with speed, determination, and heart. Many of the horses on the past 2 decades don't have the stamina, courage or allowed to have normal growth that earlier horses have. I admire the English horsemen who seem to have a nobility about the worth of a horse. How the Argentinians care for their horse and bring them along more slowly or has the horse shows it can be trained. Why is fame and money so enthralling to Americans when it comes to horse racing? These animals are not toys for us to play with and then throw away. Yes, when it comes to Breeders Cup, Americans have won the most. Does anyone question why England, France or Japan for example don't host the Breeders' Cup? The Japanese especially have many of the great American stallions, so it can't be they have lesser quality horses. They just aren't money mongers. They have respect for the thoroughbred and a certain reverence at their abilities. In the past when money wasn't so garishly important, seldom was a Citation, Sunday Silence, Nashua, Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew denied a chance at the run for the roses. A look at history would be a good wake-up call to present day owners to honor their stable of horses, be thankful for them, and care for them like they value their existence instead of treating them as a cheap ... not invest-wise of course, as millions are spent in hopes of developing a champion ... commodity. Champions come along on their own. Not all are royally bred. They all should be royally treated and treated with respect when their racing career is over, not just sent out to field, discarded, or sold as meat. The Derby will live. Just let it be. If humans try to control everything, they will destroy everything. There is a reason for nature and randomness. Be in awe of that which you can't control or always understand.
saratogajunkie More than 1 year ago
Well said Tony, but I think you answered your own questions when it comes to fame and money, there seems to be no risk not worth taking when it comes to the fame (and money) the Derby brings. I have some reservations of the new point system, and with this being the first year maybe they will need to tweak it to be inclusive of races abroad. Time will tell! but I do agree in principal with the systems concept...no more automatic entry if you win the Delta Downs Millions race as a TYO, though I do think more respect (points) should be awarded to the Breeders Cup Juv. but then again maybe thats the whole concept, making two year olds records less important will cause some owners/trainers to bring their two year olds along more slowly.