The Kentucky Derby trail twists down a different road in 2013, as a new points system replaces the old system that determines who will run for the roses on the First Saturday in May.
Last June, after the culmination of the Triple Crown series, Churchill Downs unveiled the new points system which changed the old method that utilized graded stakes earnings to decide who would earn a coveted gate at the Derby.
Churchill will abandon the graded earnings criteria by instituting a weighted point system to determine which 20 horses will qualify for the Derby. The new point system will be branded as “Road to the Kentucky Derby” and will feature 36 stakes races overall, including 17 marquee events for 3-year-old thoroughbreds that comprise a 10-week run up to America’s Greatest Race on May 4, which will be known as the “Kentucky Derby Championship Series.”
The 36 races will replace the approximately 185 graded stakes races worldwide that counted toward the Derby selection under the previous eligibility process. The 36 races will also be points-weighted based on four different segments of the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
What are some of the fine points of the new system?
Sprint races have been eliminated from the qualification process. In the past graded stakes races at less than a mile were races where horses could gather graded stakes earnings and qualify for the Derby without running in a single route race.
This is an excellent change to the system as it eliminates a horse such as last year’s male sprint champion Trinniberg, who set the early pace and faded in the 2012 Derby due to his stamina limitations. It will improve the quality of the field as horses will have to qualify by earning points in route races within the specified races in the Series.
More emphasis is placed on the marquee prep races. After the completion of the Prep Season portion of the schedule on Feb. 18, the first two legs of the Championship Series will provide the winners with the most available points to qualify. The first leg of the Championship Series includes eight races that are traditional prep races for the majors, typically in the late February and early March time frame and are weighted on a 50-20-10-5 scale, much higher than the Prep Season and lower than the major preps in the second leg. The second leg of the Series is made up of seven major preps run in late March and early April, such as the Wood Memorial, the Santa Anita Derby and the Florida Derby to name a few. The second leg will be worth 100-40-20-10 and represent the most valuable races to accumulate points for qualification.
It has lessened the chances of winners of non-marquee races with big purses from landing in the Derby. One such race, the Delta Jackpot, which in the past provided the winner with $600,000 of graded earnings and essentially provided the winner a gate in the Derby, added only a nominal total (10 points) to the winner. Thus, the winner of these races will likely need to finish strongly in the Championship Series segment of the races in order to qualify.
With every new system there are unintended consequences or downsides to implementation. While I think overall the new system is fair and practical, there are two races that seemingly out of place.
The Illinois Derby was excluded from the marquee final leg of championship races. The exclusion of the Illinois Derby, a race that provided the 2002 Derby champion, War Emblem, was likely by design. It was an obvious snub that parent company Churchill Downs pulled when eliminating the race from its new system. The Illinois Derby is run at Hawthorne Race Course, the rival Chicago track to Churchill-owned Arlington. Draw your own conclusions.
The Derby Trial was included as a last chance “wild card” points opportunity. The Derby Trial, run at a mile distance the Saturday before the Derby, hardly has provided a capable entrant. Again, this race is run at Churchill, so it could be somewhat regarded as self serving.
Overall, the point system is less complicated than the graded earnings system for the average sports fan, many of whom did not understand the previous qualification system that was in place since 1986. The chance to build fans along the Road appears to be much higher with this structure and will generate full fields and great betting races, especially in the Championship Series portion of the point system.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.com