03/08/2013 3:35PM

Steven Crist: Playing field for entry to Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup should be level


Not even the biggest proponents of the occasional handicap race believe that racing’s most important events, such as the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup, should be run at anything except equal weights. So it is increasingly unclear why the key preps for those events continue to be run at unequal weights – especially now that the results of those preps are used to guarantee or deny berths in the main events.

The emergence of the Win and You’re In races for the Breeders’ Cup in recent years and the new qualifying system for the Kentucky Derby in effect this year have given fresh urgency to the question of when – if ever – it makes sense to add weight to the equation at the very top of the sport. American racing has been slowly moving away from Grade 1 handicap races, especially in the latter half of the annual racing calendar. The entire topic of weight has receded in the sport and the old rationalization that handicap weights increase wagering interest by supposedly making a heavy favorite more beatable has become irrelevant in an era where there are so many alternatives to win betting.

With horses making so many fewer starts than they once did, and those starts in key preps now tied to admission in the Crown and lucrative entry-fee awards in the Cup, unequal weights in these events are a worse idea than ever.

Even in non-handicap races on the Derby Trail, old allowance conditions once needed to attract full fields remain in place even though they are unnecessary anachronisms. There is no shortage of Derby candidates for the races where points must be earned to secure starting berths, but race conditions remain from a time when it might be hard to scrounge six starters without them.

The first three races in this year’s new “Kentucky Derby Championship Series” all were run at unequal weights, as will many of those on the road ahead. In the Fountain of Youth Feb. 23, where victory was worth 50 Derby-qualifying points and thus an assured Derby berth, one horse (runner-up Violence) had to carry 122 pounds, while his eight opponents carried anywhere from 116 to 118 depending on their previous accomplishments.

Violence finished second by a half-length to Orb, who carried six pounds fewer, and was subsequently found to be injured and was retired, making this case a moot point but still a good example. Why would you want to award a Derby berth on the basis of a result where the winner carried six fewer pounds than the runner-up? How is it possibly fair that Violence might have been denied a Derby berth because he was being punished for having won a Grade 1 race (the CashCall Futurity) before running in the Fountain of Youth?

The same day, Ive Struck A Nerve upset the Risen Star to earn 50 Derby-qualifying points while carrying 116 pounds – the same impost as 9 of his 11 opponents but four fewer than top-weighted Oxbow, who ran fourth. Those unequal assignments were the result of gobbledygook conditions for the Risen Star, which called for a starting point of 122 pounds with “Non-winners of a Grade I or II stakes allowed 2 lbs.; a sweepstakes at a mile or over allowed 4 lbs., $27,000 twice at a mile or over, allowed 6 lbs.”

In the third KDCS race, the Gotham March 3, Vyjack and Overanalyze had to carry 123 pounds, 5 to 7 more than their nine opponents, and finished 1st and 5th, respectively. Obviously the weight made no difference to the winner, but what if Overanalyze misses the Derby cut because he might have finished a place or two higher with seven fewer pounds (punishment for winning the Remsen) on his back?

There’s no guarantee that he would have, or that the results of the Fountain of Youth or Risen Star would have been any different had they been run at level weights – but why even raise the question and tilt the field?

It is an even more glaring issue with the Breeders’ Cup Win and You’re In races, where the issue is not merely additional points for qualifying but the payment of the winner’s substantial Breeders’ Cup entry fee and travel expenses. Why should such a package be given to a horse who wins a handicap race by a nose over a superior rival who might have carried 10 pounds more?

There are a thousand ways to lose a horse race and neither life nor racing are always fair, but there is no good reason to introduce unfairness into the process when it no longer serves any useful purpose.


zerosumzen More than 1 year ago
Weight for previous accomplishments make no sense at all at this age. Once they're fully grown it's a different thing. I'm assuming it's being done with an eye on the gamblers, rather than the Kentucky Derby. The old problem with horse racing. Everybody is in it for themselves. These kind of problems can only be resolved if horse racing had a overruling and unifying body, and commissioner, in the same way as MLB and the NFL. That would also be the way to reclaim horse racing's rightful spot among the most popular sports. The slide of horse racing 's popularity in the last sixty some years is ridiculous, but nobody seems motivated enough to reverse the trend. And it's not like other sports haven't shown the way.
michael More than 1 year ago
As I said after the Big Cap??? Do you really think Game On dude would have won by the four or so lengths he did if it was a true handicap race? Maybe, but I doubt it. Frankel whining about weights helped take away the handicap races true correct saddling of imposts to even up the score in handicap horses. This should be changed back. Trainers withdrawing their horses due to post position should also change and a fee attached to healthy scratches. Trainers withdrawing horses due to wet tracks should also be changed to penalty. The KD preps should be equal weights, 120-122-124 up to the 126 run at the KD itself. Where are the Jockey Club kings when you need them.
Ann Ferland More than 1 year ago
The Jockey Club controls the registry of horses as TBs; they can suggest and pontificate, but they have no power. State racing commissions control things like licensing the human participants, medication rules, granting racing days, etc. Local tracks write the races, enforce the state rules, hire qualified stewards and others (identifiers, mutual clerks, etc.), and so on. The grading of stakes is controlled by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA) and was originally developed for use in sales catalogues. There is no single over-arching authority that can dictate to these groups. Track owners have a history of not co-operating with rival facilities. Thus we see Monmouth and Saratoga running big money 9f races for 3yos on the same weekend, diluting both fields. Gulfstream management actively working to put Hialeah out of business. Churchill Downs, Inc., pushing as hard as they can to marginalize Ellis and Turfway. And so on. The industry is fragmented and driven by money, ego, everything except the good of the sport. I have to wonder how I can care so much for it.
Dave More than 1 year ago
I personally like the points system. The fields for these preps have been strong and full for the most part. I don't think a horse's form in Saratoga 2yo graded stakes sprints should count toward the Derby. If Shanghai Bobby can't run well enough in the Fla. Derby to get in, why would anyone want him in the Derby? The horse he beat in the Juvenile, He's Had Enough, has not been overly impressive since. The best 20 horses right now should run in the Derby, not the best 13-14 and then 7-8 who were running well last year as 2yos and are thrown in because their owners feel like taking a shot. Steve makes a good point on the weights. If we want the 20 best horses in the Derby gate, then let them run with equal weights.
Ann Ferland More than 1 year ago
Once upon a time, owners of 2yos who had not trained on well wouldn't have considered running in the Derby. Not good for the horse and not sporting. Recently, we have newby owners who believe in miracles or have been lied to by their trainers who don't want to lose the client sending anything that had the earnings into the Derby, whether or not they had the form to be competitive. With the introduction of big-money slots-driven purses at what have been second- or third-tier tracks, graded earnings were becoming less and less satisfactory for determining which horses were indeed worthy of a Derby starting place. Especially with the grading committee acquiescing to the most egregious manipulations of the system (viz the pseudo-Jerome and pseudo-Withers of this winter). A horse who can place, possibly by only a nose, in a major 9f prep is certainly more worthy than one that has won only a couple of 7f sprints. Thus, a new way of limiting the Derby field to a safe number of runners was required. I'm not certain if the points system devised by Churchill is the best way, but this year has to be considered experimental and I must assume that modifications will be introduced as needed. At least I hope they will.
Dawn Gerber More than 1 year ago
I agree & disagree, if handicap races gothe way of the dinosaur (but I agree 3 year olds do not really need handicaps) I do not want to hear ANY comparisons to horses that have run in those races years ago (I certainly do not want to hear about the next coming of Secretariat after one or two races). I think we have dummied down our thoroughbreds and are breeding an inferior horse now! How about the horse that is 8 and has raced 100 times and WON!
Brandon Layer More than 1 year ago
This don't do what's best for the sport but do what's best for business attitude is killing business and the sport. What other professional sport makes decisions based on what's best for the betters? Maybe that's why the other sports are thriving while horse racing is dying. I'm pretty sure horses like Cigar and Zenyatta proving their dominance over and over again was pretty good for business and the sport. Rachel Alexandra was never strapped down with heavy weight and I'm pretty sure she was good for the sport and business too.
Dennis More than 1 year ago
It is good to see Steve is taking on a difficult and controversial subject.
nick More than 1 year ago
Dear Mr. Crist, Since when do Aquaduct , Gulfstream Park, or the Fairgeounds owe anything to Churchill Downs Inc? It is not their fault someone from CDI stuck a point value on their race. Some of the races you mentioned have quite a bit of history themselves independ.ent of the Kentucky Derby. If trainers are worries about their horses not qualifying for the Kentucky Derby, let them chart a path that will get them there, if they are good enough.
John Stevelberg More than 1 year ago
Actually the Fairgrounds is owned by CDI. Also most computers have "spell check"- use it.
Rick Baldwin More than 1 year ago
Well there seems to be no perfect solution but maybe the races giving points should be equal weights.
Elijah Allison More than 1 year ago
Nothing will change
BigBear More than 1 year ago
Your article clearly illustrates the right hand does not know (or care) what the left hand is doing in racing. The attitude of , I'll do what I want at my home field , is thrown in your face. You have identified the flaws but do the tracks care ?