From the time it was announced, the point system devised by Churchill Downs for determining Kentucky Derby entrants received a significant amount of attention, discussion, and criticism. In its inception, the switch from graded stake earnings to the point system had a few goals:
1. Emphasize the prep races closer to the Derby so that horses “on form” are more likely to gain entry;
2. Eliminate the influence of prep races that were shorter than 1 mile, but nevertheless yielded graded stakes earnings (i.e. the Hutchison Stakes at Gulfstream; the Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct);
3. Eliminate the influence of graded stakes races run on turf (i.e. the Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream;
4. Eliminate the possibility of a filly qualifying by running in restricted races only;
5. Screw Hawthorne Race Course and the Illinois Derby.
Fundamentally, the purpose of the system was to try to get the 20 best three year old route horses as of the first Saturday in May into the gate at Churchill Downs. But now that we have completed two years of the point system, is the system working?
Have the Major Complaints About the Point System Tainted the Qualification Process?
Three of the biggest complaints about the point system centered around the value of synthetic races, the minimal points awarded to the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile winner (10), and the omission of the Illinois Derby, historically a fairly important prep race given its purse. The Illinois Derby also served as the final prep race for Musket Man, my favorite Kentucky Derby third place finisher of all time. I think the synthetic criticism has proven valid, the BC Juvenile criticism has been inconclusive, and the exclusion of the Illinois Derby has failed to significantly harm the system – in fact, the Illinois Derby has reinvented itself as a nice Preakness/other spring stake prep (last two winners Dynamic Impact (over Midnight Hawk) and Departing).
Prep races on synthetic should not be worth the same amount of points as dirt races – or really any points at all. There are no turf races that are worth any significant points, yet two of the 100 point races (the Blue Grass and UAE Derby) and one 50 point race (the Spiral) are run on synthetic surfaces. Awarding such point values to these races does not support the underlying goals of the point system — which is getting the 20 best dirt route horses in the gate. Readers will be screaming Animal Kingdom or even Dullahan at their screens as they read this, but removing the synthetic preps from the schedule would also remove the least qualified horses from the current field (i.e. We Miss Artie and Harry’s Holiday). Additionally, I believe that Animal Kingdom and Dullahan both would have qualified for the Derby anyway, even if they were forced to race on dirt. Both were good enough and had fairly good dirt form (Dullahan was fine on dirt, but one of the best horses ever on synthetic).
As for the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile, the minimization of that race from a points perspective hasn’t had any impact yet, as both Shanghai Bobby and New Year’s Day got injured and would not have made the Derby under any qualification system.
Finally, the Illinois Derby has dealt with its snub admirably, and has been moved on the calendar to attract horses that are not going to Churchill Downs, but may end up at Pimlico or Belmont for the second and third jewels of the Triple Crown. As discussed below, however, this race still deserves to be worth points.
Trinniberg. One of my favorite horses of the last decade, Trinniberg, “horse-onifies” the re-evaluation of the Kentucky Derby qualification system. Trinniberg, as readers know, is a Breeder’s Cup sprint winner and speedball who earned enough qualification points in one turn races to make the Kentucky Derby gate. On the first Saturday in May, 2012, Trinniberg entered the Derby gate about to race a full three furlongs longer than he had ever raced before. Predictably, Trinniberg took the field through fast fractions and then wilted, finishing far back. For as long as the point system is in place we will never have another Trinniberg.
That does not mean that the Derby pace scenario won’t be shaken up by insane fractions, however. You only need to look at the very next year, and Palace Malice’s addition of blinkers, to see evidence that the exclusion of sprinters and one-turn specialists won’t eliminate the possibility of a preposterous pace. So on that count – ensuring a reasonable pace that won’t cause the race to fall apart – the Kentucky Derby point system is 0-1.
What about the horses that didn’t qualify? Is there any evidence that the point system, as compared to the prior graded stakes earning system, is keeping qualified horses out of the race? In short, no. This year, there are a number of horses which would have qualified based on graded earnings but did not have enough points: Casiguapo, Strong Mandate, Tamarando, Honor Code, Havana, Bond Holder and New Year’s Day to name a few. Some of these horses got injured (most obviously, New Year’s Day), and others just won big money races that did not afford sufficient Derby points to make the field. Other than New Year’s Day, it’s hard to make an argument that any of these horses would have made a difference come May 3, 2014.
The biggest impact of the Derby point system, however, is that it prevents horses from qualifying by taking the paths taken by Trinniberg or Eight Belles, among others. Though Eight Belles performed magnificently in her tragic Derby effort (and Untapable would be among the favorites this year if she were in the field), I think it is a good change that a horse cannot qualify by running in restricted races. Similarly, I think we can all agree that excluding future Trinnibergs makes sense. As a result, I think the point system has achieved its primary purpose. Regardless of the relative strength of this particular 3 year old class, the horses entering the gate on May 3 will be healthy, sharp, tested on dirt (overlooking We Miss Artie), and experienced over a route of ground.
With that said, there are a few changes that I would recommend:
• Make the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile a 50-20-10-5 race. It’s the biggest race of the year for 2 year old males and often determines the division champion. The race is at 1 1/16 miles, a clear route. Although the Juvenile winner has had a poor history in the Derby (all due respect to Street Sense), I believe the winner of that race should be in.
• Eliminate synthetic races from the point system. With Keeneleand’s return to dirt this fall, all prep races which are point-eligible should be run on dirt. The system will not miss the Spiral or the UAE Derby.
• Replace the Spiral with the Illinois Derby. The pettiness between CDI and Hawthorne is silly. The Illinois Derby is a legitimate prep on dirt with former winners including Sweetnorthernsaint, Pollard’s Vision, Ten Most Wanted and, of course, War Emblem. It should be worth points.