Horsemen react to Derby changes

As word spread June 14 of the decision by Churchill Downs to revamp the qualifying system for the 139-year-old Kentucky Derby and its sister race, the Kentucky Oaks, horsemen and owners shared mixed reactions on the changes that will begin this fall in preparation for the editions to be run in 2013.

All agreed on one thing, however; the newly-announced system, by which horses gain entry through points earned in 36 races, could use some tweaks.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who this year conditioned Zayat Stables' Bodemeister to runner-up finishes in the Derby and Preakness Stakes and Paynter to a narrow second in the Belmont Stakes, said he would have rather seen the Derby field limited to 14 entrants and the post position draw system revamped.

"Think of all the good horses that would have been kept out under the new system," Baffert said. "[2009 Kentucky Derby winner] Mine That Bird wouldn't have been able to get in, [2002 winner] War Emblem wouldn't have been able to get in.

"I don't like the way they valued the races -- like the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park, that's a very important race, and they give the winner of that 10 points. It's one of those things where I don't think the old system needed tweaking, but if they're going to tweak anything, they need to tweak the draw and the field size."

In 1997, Baffert saddled Silver Charm, one of his three Kentucky Derby winners, to victory in a 13-horse Derby field.

"The horses got entered and everybody got to run their race, everybody got a clean run," he remarked. "It means more. What happens is, you have talented runners like Union Rags get wiped out in an over-filled field. I know what they're trying to do, going back to the old days of if you won a race like the Santa Anita Derby or the Florida Derby or the Arkansas Derby you were pretty much an automatic in for the Derby -- but it's a shame about races like the Delta Jackpot. That just shows you how flawed the system is."

Under the new scoring system, races like the Delta Jackpot and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile are both worth 10 points for the winner, as is the CashCall Futurity, while races like the UAE Derby merit 100 points.

But owner Ahmed Zayat said there were also flaws in the old system by which horses with the most graded stakes earnings accumulated over their juvenile and sophomore seasons made the Derby field.

"There were lots of flaws in the old system," he remarked. "Is the new system perfect? No, but it's a great initiative. It's innovation, and that's always good. I applaud innovation and I applaud people who are trying to enhance and make racing better for everybody and make it meaningful. Times change and we need to look at things as a completely different environment. Why shouldn't racing keep revisiting and looking at itself and keep trying to renew itself by getting a better system?"

Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger, who conditioned Derby winner Unbridled in 1990 along with 2007 victor Street Sense , agreed with Baffert over cutting the race's field size and voiced concerns over what he called "manipulating" horses along the Derby trail.

"It's not leaving the horse alone, leaving the trainer alone, letting them plot their own course to get there," he said. "This way, once again, racetracks are starting to use horses to fit their agenda instead of allowing trainers to develop horses."

Still, owner Ken Ramsey said he could recognize the benefit of the new system thanks to personal experience.

"I may have very well had the Kentucky Derby checked off my list if these rules were in effect three years ago," Ramsey said. "Pleasant Prince lost the Florida Derby by about a sixteenth of an inch in 2010, then we had to run in the Blue Grass Stakes and he didn't like the Polytrack, so we ran him back in the Derby Trial and wound up 21st on the graded earnings list. A system like this one would have made a huge difference."

Ramsey said he would have been opposed to shortening the distance of the Derby or increasing the length of time between that race and the Preakness or Belmont, but the qualifying changes don't cause concern from his point of view.

"I'm never one of those guys that wants to maintain the status quo," he said. "If you have a different system, I keep an open mind. I like the fact that they're putting emphasis on the long-distance horses, I like the fact that the girls have to prep against the boys if they want to make the field. I'm not opposed to change, and as far as making sure the best horses are qualifying, that's obviously what they should do -- try to get the 20 best."

Trainer Graham Motion, who won the Derby with Animal Kingdom in 2011 and finished fourth this year with Went the Day Well, said he was concerned over good horses being left out of the race regardless of qualification method.

"I question how many legitimate horses have been excluded from the previous system and how many would be excluded by this system," Motion remarked. "I do realize there's a gray area with horses qualifying via some of these really valuable 2-year-old races at some of the lesser tracks, but I don't quite get the Illinois Derby being cut out, or the fact that the horse who wins the UAE Derby may wind up keeping out a horse like mine who won the Spiral.

"I hope they get it all ironed out," he said.

Chip Wooley, who trained Mine That Bird, voiced disapproval of the new system via Facebook, while pointing out the credentials of his colt who went on to run second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont Stakes in 2009.

"Under this new system, Mine That Bird, who ran 1-2-3 in the Triple Crown and beat the [Santa Anita, Arkansas, Florida, and Louisiana Derby winners] in consecutive races would not have gotten to run in the Derby," Wooley wrote. "In Nascar you can change tires, rebuild your engine, and run week to week. Horses have a very limited number of races in them. Especially horses at this level."