The qualifying point system presently used by Churchill Downs to select the maximum 20 horses that will be allowed to run in the 140th Kentucky Derby is better than the old system that was based on Graded Stakes earnings.
It is a lot better because it places an important emphasis on recent form achieved in races longer than one mile, instead of giving free tickets to the Derby for rich victories scored at sprint distances the prior year. After all, the Derby is not a sprint, it's a testing 1¼-mile race for top-quality 3-year-olds.
Yet despite the beneficial changes, the current point system still has a few glaring flaws that should be addressed by Churchill Downs officials.
The most important is to realize how rare it will be to see a filly of high quality ever run in the world's most famous race. Frankly, under the current system, I make the odds of that happening about 100-1.
First, let me briefly summarize the key elements of the point systems for the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby.
While the Kentucky Oaks is as old as the Kentucky Derby and is a prestigious target for 3-year-old fillies, the system for the Kentucky Derby invariably shuts out 3-year-old fillies who might otherwise challenge male rivals in the Derby.
The Derby has 34 qualifying races, the first 18 of which run from September through mid-February. They are worth 10 points to the winner, four for second, two for third and one for fourth. From mid-February through late March, there are eight Derby prep races worth 50, 20, 10 and five points.
These are followed by seven premier Derby preps worth 100, 40, 20 and 10. This group includes the recently run Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby, among others.
Finally, there is one race in which a horse can earn last-minute Derby qualifying points: the Lexington Stakes, a "10 point race," just like the first 18.
The system is used when more than 20 horses are entered in the Kentucky Derby. In that case, only the top 20 point earners get into the race.
Fewer preps are on the list for the Kentucky Oaks, but they follow similar point distributions. And, should more than 14 fillies be entered, only the top 14 point earners will be allowed in the starting gate.
While the Kentucky Oaks is as old as the Kentucky Derby and is a prestigious target for 3-year-old fillies, the system for the Kentucky Derby invariably shuts out 3-year-old fillies who might otherwise challenge male rivals in the Derby. To make it into the Derby, a star filly would have to forego running in the richest, best races for 3-year-old fillies in order to take a shot in a 50- or 100-point race against male rivals.
While that is an option, any owner or trainer making that choice essentially would be opting prematurely not to run in the Kentucky Oaks.
In contemporary times, male or female racehorses rarely race more than once a month, so very few fillies could be pointed for 100 point prep races for both the Oaks and Derby. Should a star filly fall short in say, the Wood Memorial, or Santa Anita Derby, that filly probably would not have nearly enough points to still get into the Oaks.
Going even deeper, if such a top-notch filly somehow managed to win a 50-point race for the Oaks AND earn 40 or 100 points in a prep against males for the Kentucky Derby, the effort expended to qualify for both races might require time off rather than an attempt to win the nine-furlong $1 million Oaks, or the 10-furlong $2 million Kentucky Derby.
Churchill officials argue that Genuine Risk faced males when third in the 1980 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct before she went on to win that year's Kentucky Derby. They also argue that Winning Colors proved she belonged in the 1988 Kentucky Derby when she beat males four weeks earlier in the Santa Anita Derby.
There are two factors that don't support that argument, however.
First, if today's point system were in play, Genuine Risk would only have earned 20 points for her third-place finish in the Wood, which would not have been enough for her to make it into the 1980 Kentucky Derby.
Second, Winning Colors might not have even run in the Santa Anita Derby if her connections knew in advance that a defeat in the SA Derby would have left Winning Colors without sufficient Oaks qualifying points.
In those days, before the point system, before any Derby qualifying system, fillies could be entered in both the Oaks and Derby, with a final decision made by their connections on Oaks Day, the day before the Kentucky Derby.
Looking at this objectively, Churchill Downs actually is acting against its own interests here. For a company that loves the Kentucky Derby and believes in protecting its history, they are writing off any realistic chance of reliving some of the Derby's most glorious chapters. To rectify this, Churchill should find a way to open a more reasonable door for fillies, not close it.
Here is a suggestion that Churchill could easily add to their rules in 2014:
1. The filly who earns the most Oaks qualifying points should be given an optional ticket into the Kentucky Derby (as well as the usual ticket to the Oaks). The filly's owner can decide which race to enter.
If the above rule is enacted, a qualified filly in the Derby would create considerable excitement and good publicity for Churchill Downs.
Here are a few more thoughts on improvements begging to be made for the 2014 Derby prep race point schedule.
2. The point value for the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile should be raised to a 20-point race. At present, the BC Juvenile is among the 18 qualifying races for 10 points, which unfairly diminishes its true championship value.
3. Churchill should include the Illinois Derby, which produced good Kentucky Derby performances in recent years, including War Emblem, who won the Illinois Derby and the Kentucky Derby in 2002, and Musket Man, who finished third in the 2009 Kentucky Derby after winning in Illinois. Why this rich graded stakes was not included in the matrix of eligible Derby prep races seems a slight to the host track, Hawthorne Race Course.
4. Several 10-point Derby prep races should be increased to 20-point races. At present, the difference between 10-point races and 50-point races seems too severe. Also, good performances by worthy Derby prospects are muted in such important races as the Holy Bull, the Withers, the Robert B Lewis, El Camino Real Derby and the Southwest Stakes. These are the last five 10-point races on the present list of 18 that offer the fewest qualifying points.
Frankly, there is nothing radical in any of the above ideas. Bottom line: The Kentucky Derby is a great race with an honored history. By improving the present eligibility procedures, its future will be better preserved.