06/14/2012 3:40PM

Trainers skeptical of Kentucky Derby eligibility changes

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Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Steve Asmussen believes changes to the way the Kentucky Derby field is determined were unnecessary.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The newly revised parameters that will guide eligibility into the Kentucky Derby were met with mixed reaction and some doses of skepticism Thursday by trainers who have been perennial major players on the Derby scene in recent years.

Steve Asmussen was adamant in his opinion that the new rules are overwrought and unnecessary. Graham Motion said he was particularly puzzled by the downgrading of the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park, a race he used the last two years with Animal Kingdom (winner of the 2011 Derby) and Went the Day Well (fourth in 2012).

Also, Todd Pletcher questioned whether downgrading 2-year-old events would preclude a horse such as Uncle Mo, the 2-year-old champion of 2010 who got behind schedule early in his 3-year-old year, from making the field.

[MORE: New Road to the Derby schedule and point totals | Ranking the 2012 field]

On the flip side, Larry Jones said the changes probably will do more good than harm by devaluing 2-year-old races and sprints, while Bob Baffert said he is “mostly okay” with the changes, with some reservations.

Here is a limited sampling of those opinions:

◗ Steve Asmussen: “I guess the wrong person’s horse got excluded. I am absolutely opposed to these changes. [The old system] really seemed like it was working just fine. We’re in horse racing because the results are obvious, they’re self-evident. This isn’t some subjective sport like figure skating where you don’t know who the French judge is. The Derby is the only thing in racing that seems to be working, so why have they tinkered with it?”

◗ Bob Baffert: “What they really need to do is get rid of the one-hole,” he joked initially, referring to the brutal trip Lookin At Lucky endured from post 1 in the 2010 Derby.

“I see what they’re trying to accomplish, get the most up-to-date names, but some of the California races were snubbed a little bit, like the CashCall [Futurity at Betfair Hollywood Park], which I think is a major prep. I’m just afraid that when they downgrade these races it’ll give the other tracks a reason to cut their purses on them, which I don’t think is fair to the owners. On the point system, if a race is given 100 points, then it should be a $1 million race.

“I don’t have a problem with a lot of the other things, like the sprints or the filly races [no longer being valued]. The Grade 1 races going long, that’s where the emphasis should be.”

◗ Larry Jones: “I haven’t gotten into the changes all that much, but it sounds like a good idea to me. You’re asking for a lot more recency from horses, and you’re making them do it at a route of ground. So I’d say it’s probably a good thing.”

◗ Graham Motion: “The Spiral [historically has been] a more significant race than the UAE Derby,” which carries double the point values. “Both of my horses belonged” in the Derby, referring to Animal Kingdom and Went the Day Well. “It would be a shame if that was the case.”

◗ Todd Pletcher: “There are certain races to me that should qualify you to get into the Kentucky Derby, and I think the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is one of those races. If you get behind schedule and can only run in one prep, you might not be able to get in. That seems a little off kilter.

“I guess my question is this: ‘Was the previous system really flawed where it left someone out?’ A couple of years ago [in 2006], I had Sunriver, who was 21st (on the earnings list). I didn’t feel like I had a gripe. He was third in the Florida Derby, he didn’t get in, we moved on.

“I see the potential for this to leave out a good horse. Maybe, I’ll be proven wrong, but the previous system didn’t leave out the winner.”

◗ Dale Romans: “I haven’t read them all yet, but I didn’t know we had a problem. I’ve never known there to be any kind of big controversy because of the graded-earnings rankings. Down through the years, I don’t think there were many good horses that didn’t get to run in the Derby because of the old system. Maybe Rock Hard Ten [in 2004], but those kinds of horses have been far and few between.”

◗ Nick Zito: “I think this will generate some enthusiasm from fans during the spring. The Derby just gets bigger every year.'

“I don’t really have any complaints. The way I see it, the road I’ve taken is you can get there if you’ve got the horse. Maybe they could tweak the rules a little, and they’ll probably do so down the road. But at the end of the day when you run well in the big races, you’re going to make it, right or wrong? I’ve got no complaints. I’m just looking for Secretariat.”

– additional reporting by David Grening