Sep 062017

Yes I know, the Kentucky Derby is quite a long way off but I read a recent article about changes made to the points system and which horses will get an entry.

We already know that the current system excludes fillies unless a filly competes in the Churchill Downs selected qualifying races against colts. So we are unlikely to see another Genuine Risk or Winning Colors under the current system, which is a shame really but I can make justification that fillies should be required to meet the same requirements as colts to enter. Not that I agree but I can make the argument.

A few years back the UAE Derby became essentially a lock race for entry into the Derby because it gives 100 points to the winner. Last year we saw the introduction of a Japanese path to the Derby. New for 2018 we have a European path to the Kentucky Derby consisting of a series of turf and synthetic races. The combination of these “paths” can account for up to 4 spots in the starting gate given to horses that never faced competition in the United States. 1 Japan, 1 Europe, and 2 from UAE Derby since second place gets 50 points and that is usually enough to get in.

The obvious question is why? Why would Churchill want to offer spots to horses that really probably could not qualify otherwise? The easy answer is money, generating interest on different continents will increase handle and line the pockets of folks at Churchill. I’m fine with making money, don’t get me wrong, but watering down the field doesn’t need to be the answer. Increase the purse. If Churchill wants the Kentucky Derby to be a big multi-national race with worldwide interest, why not increase the purse? $2,000,000 is hardly in line with other top races around the world in this day and age.

Historically the Kentucky Derby has been a race for American 3yo dirt horses. There have been a couple exceptions to this but in general even those horses with international flavor competed in US based races to qualify. Animal Kingdom never won a race on dirt before winning the derby, but he qualified by winning the Spiral at Turfway. Even a horse like Barbaro that won most of his starts on turf had to prove it in a high level qualifier to insure his spot in the starting gate by winning the Florida Derby.

I’m not opposed to “foreign invaders” competing in the Kentucky Derby, so let’s not make it about that. I simply think that if a filly has to face the boys in qualifying races, then foreign horses can cross the pond and compete in those races as well. Most of us will remember Arazi, he was the foreign superstar that destroyed a 2yo field in the Breeder’s Cup juvenile and he had tons of fans here in the United States when he returned to run in the Kentucky Derby, but again he won an important race to get there.

The world already has international races where horses from all over the world compete for huge purses. Events like the Breeder’s Cup, Dubai World Cup, Melbourne Cup, Japan Cup and Royal Ascot do a great job with this. I see no need for the Kentucky Derby to become one of those events, but if it does want to be that type of event, increase the purse and come up with a better system for who gets in the starting gate.

The European folks here can correct me if I am wrong but I doubt there is a path to say The Epsom or 2000 Guineas where an American horse can win a couple races on dirt and turf and get an automatic bid into the race. If an American owner wants to compete in those races they would need to ship the horse to Europe and prove the horse deserves a spot by competing against the best in Europe. Those races are for 3 year old turf horses that compete in Europe and that is exactly how it should be.

I think that in an effort to gain more worldwide appeal and increased handle that Churchill is hurting the tradition of the Kentucky Derby and watering down the competition in the process. I see no need for manufactured paths to the starting gate for horses that never face competition in the United States. Let’s leave those types of races where they belong, in Invitationals and International racing fairs.

Fire away with the comments, I think this topic deserves discussion.

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  16 Responses to “Is Churchill Downs watering down the Kentucky Derby?”

  1. Once again the crowd is trying to see the forest and missing the big tree here. The entry system has little to do with international prestige, Europe, or even the quality of the race. It has to do with culture and the American bloodstock market.

    Only in recent decades has there been a need to cap fields at 20, and they always have horses on the bubble waiting to get in. The race is almost always truly an 8 horse contest, with 12 or so automatic also-rans that have no realistic chance of placing in the top 3.

    What gives? Having a horse in the Derby had become such a prestigious SOCIAL accomplishment that it drives the high end of the domestic sales market to skewed proportions AND is increasingly becoming an important part of American racing’s business model. Keep in mind that interest is rapidly dwindling EXCEPT for the Triple Crown… there are plenty of Chromies and American Pharoah groupies who know little to nothing of the game and are not ‘gamblers’. They still might go to Saratoga or Del Mar and spend dough, just not through the mutuel windows. Syndicates are in vogue and folks with disposible income clamor to be a part of the party, even if their horse has absolutely no shot of competing. In order to weed out the undeserving, you scatter the qualifying races around the globe and voila, you’ve expanded your market.

    Not unlike what Las Vegas has tried, thoroughbred racing is trying to move more to the ‘entertainent’ model and this is their crown jewel, pun slightly intended.

    • “In order to weed out the undeserving, you scatter the qualifying races around the globe and voila, you’ve expanded your market”

      How are you weeding out the undeserving by creating an easy path for the undeserving? You’re only maybe expanding your market which is also questionable because folks in these countries don’t give a flip about the Kentucky Derby. They might care if they sent a quality horse to win a huge purse and embarrass those pesky colonists though.

      • “Undeserving” in the sense of the ownership pool, not the attributes of the horse. They don’t care about the quality of the race when it comes down to it. The highest bidders will buy into the horses who have qualified under their arbitrary points system.

        Again, to me, the system is not about the horses. That’s why it’s silly to argue it’s flaws on that basis…

        • You bring up a good point DB, and I’m naive to not see it. I’m purely a fan of the racing and the horses. I very rarely gamble anymore yet I still follow the sport at the stakes and graded level. Why should I expect the sport to be about the sport when every other sport I used to follow has turned to crap for the same reason.

          The good ole days weren’t always all that good but in some ways they were. Days when you followed a team and knew who the players were going to be next year. Oh well, great point and this is why I wrote the article, to provoke some honest discussion without the poo flinging.

          • It was a good article and a great discussion! My comments were meant more for the Europe vs. USA factions which never seem to cease around here :)

  2. FWIW all three Derby winning fillies faced males prior to their Classic victories, although only Winning Colors would have earned enough points under the current system to guarantee entry in any year. Personally I would prefer a decrease in field size to 16 or 14 and decrease the number of point awarding races. I could even see where an invitational system might work. The 20 horse fields are a relatively recent phenomenon and personally I don’t think it makes a positive impact on the race. Of course losing that many betting interests will never happen.

    • Yes, Winning Colors won the Santa Anita Derby and Genuine Risk ran 3rd in the Wood Memorial.

      Fields have generally been 16-20 as far back as I can remember. I think Pleasant Colony actually beat a field of 21 runners. You have to go back to the 1970′s to see any significant drop in field sizes. Even then they were pretty big fields.

      • Field size for the Derby topped out at 23 in 1974, the Derby Centennial and that year the field size was topped out at 20 (although I do believe you are correct that ’81 was an aberration). That said there is a big difference I think between a field size of 16 and one of 20. In this century the smallest field size for the Derby was 16 in 2003 and the 20 mark has been hit fairly regularly. But just go back to the 90′s and you had a field size of just 13 (1997) and an average field size of 16.7 for the decade. My question is two fold – are those extra 4 slots really necessary and if we fill them with the runners up in the LA Derby and Rebel are they really worth filling to being with?

  3. First of all there are no qualifying races for the UK Derby or Oaks.

    There is a cut off point in the handicap ratings to stop “bad” horses from entering but anything above that point is eligible and after that it is the highest rated that gets in, though it very seldom fills.

    UK horses target a few big races in the Americas (Breeders Cup, Arlington Million etc) but the Kentucky Derby isn’t one of them.

    It probably just falls at the wrong time in the European racing year to fit into the schedules of the top horses, so if the race does get targeted by European horses it’s unlikely to be the top European horses.

    The Guineas are in May and the Derby is in June closely followed by Royal Ascot also in June so it doesn’t fit nicely into any schedules.

    I think that having entries qualifying through specific races actually lowers the prestige of the Kentucky Derby and probably devalues the race in the eyes of racing folk in other countries.
    Especially if the top yards see very ordinary horses qualify simply by winning one specific race.

    There is no perceived prestige for the big Euro yards to bypass the big races in Europe to take in the “open to all” Kentucky Derby.

  4. Let’s remember there aren’t really preps for stuff like the 2000 Guineas. Do you know what this year’s winner Churchill’s prep was? Presumably it was on the Coolmore practice track because he didn’t have an actual entry. The 2000 Guineas was his first start of 2017.

    I really don’t have a problem with this system. First, we haven’t seen two UAE horses enter yet. Second, the Japanese qualifier is unlikely to come over every year. Third, it allows our American horses to smash these horses. I’d love to see Europe’s top 3yo come over and get crushed on the dirt, at 10 furlongs, in a 20 horse field. This would actually be really awesome. It would be even better because we would have empirical evidence that the Galileo, Frankel, Sea the Stars etc runners can’t win on the dirt versus American sires.

    Finally, I don’t really feel sorry for the 17, 18, 19 and 20th ranked horses. You want in? Win or place in a big race. I feel the KY Derby points system is perfect now. It gives very little credence to 2yo races and rewards those horses who are winning and getting better as 3yos. I view this a lot like the NCAA Basketball tournament. Who cares which bubble team didn’t get in? They are losing in the first two rounds anyway. The Final Four is gonna be Kansas, North Carolina or Duke, Kentucky and some other big name power anyway. Here the winner isn’t coming from that 18 spot in the majority of years. And if this means that Mine That Bird never wins the KY Derby I say great. I hate 50/1 shots winning the Derby. Ruins the entire Triple Crown Season in the first leg for me.

    Oh and for fillies, I don’t feel they should get any special treatment. Why should they? Go out and win the Santa Anita Derby if you want in. I think they should play by the same points system as the colts.

  5. You are way wrong on how races fill in Europe or most other countries. Did you not notice that an American filly tried to run in the Oaks this year. Did not an American horse run in the Irish 2,000 about 2 years ago. The system for entry is easy the highest rated horses get the berths up to the point of field safety cut off. If there were 20 US entries in The Derby who were rated higher than any of the other entries they would all run. It would make sense for The Kentucky Derby to follow this path as at the end of the day the better the quality of the horse’s running the better the race.
    There is a slight technical issue with a system not open to overseas entrants that is not open it can be seen as a restricted stakes race and it would be easy for Japan to push that boat which would not be a good thing for US racing.
    As for shipping horses in for trails you need to understand quarantine rules and regulations and if you do will know it is not really technically a realistic prospect without moving a horse full time to the US and even this can mess up a training schedule.
    You are correct about the policy being a money making plan. Though anything that generates wider appeal in racing has to be a good thing wherever the racing takes place. There was a good article in the TDN last week or the week before about the demographics of the breakdown on horse players at Woodbine. If you read this you can understand better the policy of Churchill Downs.

    • Ok, highest rated gets in. How are those ratings determined? Is it a point system determined by the host track?

      I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea here, I’m not opposed to horses from other countries running, not at all. I am opposed to manufactured paths to the starting gate. While this may be inclusive, its not really attracting quality entries.

      Ridiculous example I’m going to use but what if a horse like Churchill, their owners decided they wanted to take a shot at the Kentucky Derby? Sorry you can’t because you didn’t run in our hand picked races. He’s clearly a highly rated 3yo horse. So based on a realistic rating system he should be allowed to run. What if the purse was $5M and entry was based on performance in graded/group races? Is it far fetched to believe a Top quality European horse might take a shot at that purse?

      I think there are better ways to be inclusive and attract quality rather than token entrants. To me it seems Churchill wants the worldwide interest and dollars but not enough to raise the purse and attract quality horses that might actually win. They could part with a couple extra million with the handle they get that day.

      • No the rating is a handicap rating based on past performance. This will be deduced looking at form against other horses similar to the World Global Rankings.

        I agree with the Churchill example but that is why the above method is better. You could have the Champion 2yo missing potentially as he was off but fit to race on Kentucky Derby day and miss out on a triple crown winner. The hand pick race thing is why the Japanese for example could get the hump as for so long their racing was considered restricted for doing things in a slightly similar fashion.

        You have to also take into account NYRA (Belmont Stakes and other races) already have a scheme like this in place (and the Breeder Cup) so it obviously works.

        I doubt any of the really top line horses would come over simple fact is the prize if $2m, $5m or $10m is peanuts to the stud income a top racehorse can earn. The best way to earn that money is to win the prestige races in the region of the world your stallion is going to stud.

        Thunder Snow though was a very good horse who knows what happened to him ,though his last 5 turf runs have all been to a rating of 118-119 and he has picked up 2 grade 1 wins (although soft races) and several grade 1 placing’s though he is obviously not as good as the same owners Barney Roy or Ribchester.

        The other factor is climate in Europe the horses are only really starting off in May and not having sunny climates to house them in puts their body clock at a slight disadvantage in terms of growth and development at that time of year. This is why so much of the top international racing occurs later on in the year.

  6. I don’t think they’re “watering” down anything. Lets be real here. The bottom 2 horses who barley get in rarely to NEVER win the Derby or even go on to win any major G1 races in their career. In fact – most of them end up being Allowance runners the rest of their career. Why not give that 19 and 20 slot to the best horse from Japan and Europe? Yes, it will also attract money from the other side of the world for the Derby (isn’t that what horse racing is all about?) so this move is good for horse racing.

    • Well we’re not giving the slots to “the best” horses in Japan and Europe and that’s the point. It’s just a manufactured path to get into the big dance for third rate horses from countries that don’t place any importance on the race. Which is why I say to raise the purse to attract more serious contenders and do away with the manufactured paths.

      Let’s look at recent history.

      Lookin at Lee, Sonateer, Mo Tom, Frammento, Keen Ice, Vinceramos, Commanding Curve, Golden Soul, Giant Finish, Those would have all been excluded. Animal Kingdom, Giacomo, Mine that Bird are winners that would have been excluded. Giacomo won the San Diego after the derby, Animal Kingdom won the Dubai World Cup and others.

      Mubtahiij, Lani, Toast of New York, Daddy Long Legs UAE Derby winners that did nothing.

      Mafaaz the only horse given a birth when they tried this back in 2009 from Europe, he ran in the Bluegrass and finished 8th. Skipped the other races.

      Epicharis didn’t run last year

      Thunder Snow was last after a bad start and his bucking and kicking fits. He appears to be a fairly good turf horse.

      • I still think thunder snow was a top 7 or so horse in the derby. He obviously did not like the mud pit and shipping him in soooo late may not of been to his advantage.

        The point system I think is fine. However I like to see them adjusted so the last prep does not give soon many points. I do not see a.reason why say the holy bull is 10 pts to winner, the same the 4th place finisher in the Florida derby gets. I know it’s a G1, closer to the derby, and a whole 1/16 longer, but should not be worth 10x the points as the holy bull. Reward some of the horses that run more verses 3 pretty much auto entries from each final prep. JMO