The Kentucky Derby will be run for the 142nd time on May 7, but this year will be just the fourth since the current system to determine the starting field has been in effect -- one based on points -- and the implications are noticeable.
With Churchill Downs making the races closest to the Derby worth the most points and eliminating the previous system -- one based on earnings in graded stakes races -- the field has become far more predicated on current form, which was the intention of Churchill when it came up with the new system. It seems, too, that trainers are learning how to manage their horses under the current system, because the cutoff to make this year's Derby field looks as though it will be the highest to date.
In 2013, the first year for which points determined who got the coveted 20 slots in the Derby field, a mere 10 points were needed to make the race after a rash of late defections.
In 2014, 20 points were needed, and the last horse who got in, Commanding Curve, finished second to California Chrome.
Last year, 22 points were needed on entry day to make the original field, but after a late scratch, Frammento -- who had 20 points -- drew in from the also-eligible list.
This year, one week out from entry day, May 4, 32 points are needed to get a spot in the field. There are four horses with 32 points, but Mo Tom secured the 20th spot because of the tiebreaker, earnings in non-restricted stakes races. Fellowship, Adventist, and Laoban -- who also have 32 points -- are ranked 21st through 23rd, in that order, reflecting their earnings in non-restricted stakes.
If nothing changes over the next week, Fellowship, Adventist, Laoban, and 24th-ranked Dazzling Gem -- who has 30 points -- could still be entered, as up to four also-eligibles are allowed at entry time. Their connections can then hope to draw in before scratch time on Kentucky Oaks morning, the day before the Derby.
Had the prior system, earnings in graded stakes, still been in effect, the complexion of this year's Derby might have changed significantly because horses who earned considerable cash at age 2 or early this year at 3 but have not progressed in the last few months could have supplanted those who have more points.
For instance, Sunny Ridge ($450,000) and Airoforce ($449,080) have far more graded-stakes earnings than top-20 point earners Destin, Danzing Candy, Shagaf, Tom's Ready, Mo Tom, My Man Sam, Majesto, and Trojan Nation (the latter three were runners-up in final-round Derby preps that offered 100 points for first and 40 for second). Under the points system, Sunny Ridge and Airoforce are ranked well below those eight runners.
It's very likely that Sunny Ridge and Airoforce wouldn't be running under the old system anyway, owing to their recent performances, but this helps illustrate how the points system differs from the system based on graded-stakes earnings.
Other horses with terrific 2-year-old form who did not advance at 3 but whose earnings under the old system would have left them in the Derby field were Swipe ($520,600) and Greenpointcrusader ($379,300). They, too, are well down the points list, with 12 and 14.
Assuming, though, that the horses still under consideration for this year's Derby would not change whether the system being used was points or earnings, there still are permutations near the bottom of the points list that are intriguing.
For instance, the connections of Uncle Lino -- currently ranked 25th on points -- were monitoring the Derby field and were considering running in the race had there been wholesale changes to the field. That won't happen, and he's not running. However, if the old earnings system was still in play, Uncle Lino's graded-stakes earnings ($174,000) would have placed him above Fellowship ($169,250), Adventist ($155,000), Dazzling Gem ($150,000), and Laoban ($142,000). He'd be in.
The points system also puts a premium on two-turn races. Horses who earned gobs of cash in one-turn races can't get in unless they prove their mettle around two turns. Nyquist is a prime example of a horse who has handled that jump. Awesome Banner (0 points but $195,400 in graded earnings) did not.
As a result, pure sprinters -- like Trinniberg, Bodemeister's pace nemesis in 2012 -- aren't in the Derby field. The change from graded earnings to points came one year too late for Bodemeister. How the points system and its impact on pace will affect this year's field is among the many factors handicappers will be evaluating after the field is drawn and post time nears.