I hate the idea of racing at Keeneland being the all-but-forced path to Churchill Downs. That is, if your horse didn’t get enough points and really need that last x amount of points to make the final 24 (20 plus 4 also eligible). Why was the trail set up so that category of horse must race on something other than dirt? I thought a prep race was just that, to prepare one for what was to come.
We all know that no thoroughbred on this side of the Atlantic will see a field of 19 others at any time before or after. That’s a true given. Here’s another: It’s all but impossible to find a 10 furlong race that a colt or filly should run to prepare for the 10 furlongs of the Derby. It makes matters worse when there are races on the Trail that don’t measure up or get lost in the shuffle compared to the big races, the Grade 1 3YO races that dwarf the marginal ungraded ones in terms of ponits and stature.
How I have wagered the race is my usual: choosing my top 3 horses, plus the field, in a series of wins and exactas in all 4 Derby pools (plus same for the Oaks). This year, it seems that a lot of my horses are just not making the show. The first thing I think of is this: The Trail point system is creating haves and have-nots of the different owners and trainers, and the actual path in terms of geography and timing make it challenging to race in a horse’s best interest. Look at the number of horses who fell off the Trail this year. And please don’t bring up the case of Steve Asmussen and Tapiture (I have several wins and exactas on that horse alone).
Why are the Keeneland races run at the end? Why are they involved? I’m glad at least to read that they will go back to dirt for next year’s Trail, so this rant has a short shelf life. Even with that, it’s hard for us horseplayers to know how a horse will do going into the Derby itself. I say there should be better and proper prep races.
Some blog posts have shaped my thinking further. JJ Hysell, Louisville, KY-based writer on all things thoroughbred racing, and the creator of the blog In The Money, gathered a quote from trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Cairo Prince. The interview is dated March 27, 3 weeks before Cairo Prince was withdrawn due to his injured left front ankle.
McLaughin states that “..right now….to win on different surfaces around the world and get 100 points for races or 50 points, and then have proper dirt preps that have been there forever and the Breeders’ Cup be worth 10 points, I just don’t understand.” More:
I also located a Q&A with McLaughin by Ciara Bowen, who writes for Bloodhorse.com Here there is more ammo for the veteran trainer’s argument against the point system. In part: “…if you want 20 of the best horses to get in the gate for the Kentucky Derby, you have to give equal weight to everybody. You can’t penalize people for winning prep races. What if you have no points?”
I think the point system is here for the long term. But I’m willing to change things up, or at least make some proper suggestions that will effect that change. I cannot speak to weights as well as a trainer can as I don’t handicap along those lines. I can come from the standpoint of studying each prep, seeing where and when these races occur, and try to build a better mousetrap.
I wrestled with the final product for days, wondering if I should go as far as to rank every single prep race on its own merit, but I stopped short. I did, though, begin by keeping the 3YO races ahead of the 2YO races, making the Breeders Cup Juvenile the best race for 2YOs. The top rung belongs to the tracks that showcase the Grade 1 races with the largest purse.
I was tempted to follow through with ranking all North American tracks to determine which belongs on the Trail and which doesn’t. Such ranking would fine tune a sort of point system that would include smaller tracks and give them new life by putting their one best race, appropriate and timely for the Derby Trail, in the mix. It would certainly aim to attract fans to the track, knowing that their representative race will have Derby points and something to hang their hats on.
I gave thought to streamlining the points in 4 categories.
The lowest category would go to racetracks whose best appropriate race is ungraded and for 2YO colts (or colts/geldings).
The 2nd category would be the same except that the best race would be the graded ones, with the best race in this category being the Breeders Cup Juvenile. All the races in that 2nd category get more points than the ungraded ones.
Next up would be the ungraded best race per track pointed to 3YOs. Finally, the most points would go to the graded 3YO events.
I’d eliminate the non-American race, the UAE Derby from the mix. Also, I nix, with 2 main exceptions, multiple races on the Trail per track. Every track gets one race on the Trail, their best one. I rank those based on Graded status, then by purse.
I then attempted to calculate the effectiveness of a Derby prep, to answer this question: How worthy of a prep race is it to the track? The Sunland Derby has seen 12 KY Derby entrants fail to win the Run For The Roses. On the upside, the most successful track is Gulfstream, where 18 horses out of 136 winners of the Florida Derby won at the Kentucky Derby. Percentage-wise, that’s 13%, more than the 6% from Keeneland and Belmont, and the 4% range by Santa Anita, Churchill Downs itself, and Aqueduct. Note that I factor in, for these tracks, the combined total of the active prep races. Aqueduct is 25-547, just over 6%.
I further wanted to rank tracks by their average graded race, lessening the graded total for the 2YO races they have involved. By my ranking, Gulfstream comes out ahead again, over Fair Grounds, Santa Anita, Tampa Bay, Keeneland and Belmont. Woodbine and Delta Downs were at the bottom.
After all this, I buried somewhat my own direction, thinking maybe I could devise a much more graduated point system involving every track, as suggested. Then a new thought came into being that stuck with me: What about those trainers who’d rather race horses in one or two geographic area (such as the common NY to FL and back move) and not ship so often simply to chase points? Even
And then the big idea came in. Having been enamored for years by tournament structures, namely football’s (OK, soccer’s) World Cup and the NCAA basketball Big Dance, I hit upon the idea of creating a system that would guarantee that the 24 final eligible horses for the Kentucky Derby would represent all ‘geographic divisions’ of North American horse racing. The race has such history, such lore, such a place in Americana that it deserves to be a worthy prize. The Mine That Bird story, now made into a film, can be retold, and redone, with a different horse. Or a true superhorse that hardly gets attention at first but is suddenly on everyone’s lips as it turns three. I want there to be a good story, and have the best competition be existent in one place.
Before I launch into the nuts and bolts, allow me to rant about a few things I really don’t like that may be taking away from the Derby and likely the Triple Crown itself.
Doing my stakes schedule research via several sites, I discovered that in 2011, there was a prize for the connections of horses who finish in the top 3 in certain races, and the Preakness. Nothing about the Derby. Is there unspoken temptation to skip the Derby just for a $5.5 million shot at glory? Is that the going rate for glory?
Equally heinous was the connections of Spend A Buck in 1985. After winning the Run For the Roses, they opted to race him in Garden State Park’s signature race, the Jersey Derby for a huge $2.6 million prize. He did win by a neck over Creme Fraiche, who would later win the Belmont. This felt like a travesty, shunning the Triple Crown. I’d rather see owners go for that lofty prize instead of a pure money grab. I haven’t seen evidence of a bonus for the Preakness on top of prep race placement since 2011 but I sure would not like to see anyone skip the sainted Kentucky Derby for this. It’s wrong for the sport.
And here’s what else I would change:
Space out the Derby, the Preakness and Belmont Stakes to a period of 4 weeks. First Saturdays in May, June, July. It’s for the horse’s safety, and our sanity, for sure.
Also, the Derby shouldn’t have to be 20 horses. Why can’t it be 14, more in line with the biggest fields normally fielded in North America? Again, safety, sanity, and the familiarity with field size should be prepared for.
To briefly amend my de facto rules for Derby qualifications, field size alone should not eliminate a horse, but you’re sure asking for trouble.if you really want to tackle 19 others when you’ve run against only against, say, 9 before.
OK, now that system:
What I envision are divisions by geography of the different race tracks. I see x amount of horses coming from the major and, let’s say mid-major race tracks that offer Graded stakes races and some of the better ungraded stakes on the continent.
Going beyond this idea, I wanted to include every track that offered something that would fit into a Derby Trail:
The one best race for 2YO colts (and possibly geldings) between June and December on the calender, and the best 3YO race for colts scheduled between January and before the Blue Grass in mid-April.
I first took a look at the ratings listed by the Horseplayers Association Of North America. They rank 64 tracks based on field size, handle and more. From the list, I studied the stakes schedule of each. Using my calendar/race rules, I uncovered the best representative race of each track. There were 2 notable exceptions: The Bredeers Cup tends to change tracks annually. It’s the best race for a Derby prospect at 2, bar none. If the race is at a track whose best race is, say, ungraded, then the Breeders Cup race is best. In all other cases, it is the 3YO race, graded or no, that must take priority.
Also, Northlands Park has 2 stakes aces at $50k. I decided on keeping them both.
Recall the four categories for race tracks I listed earlier:
*Tracks whose best race is ungraded for 2YO. Examples for available info per track include: Monmouth Park (Sapling Stakes), Woodbine (Grey Stakes), Louisiana Downs (Sunday Silence Stakes). 20 tracks in all fit.
*2nd category: Tracks whose best race is Graded for 2YO. Full list: Delta Downs (DeD Jackpot), Belmont (Champagne), Del Mar (DM Futurity), Saratoga (Hopeful), Churchill Downs (KY Jockey Club), 5 tracks total.
Add to this the BC Juvenile ONLY for these 5 tracks. If it’s held elsewhere, where 3YOs races rank better), it will not trump the 3YO race there. That’s how it goes.
*3rd category: Tracks whose best race is ungraded for 3YOs. Full list: Pimlico (Tesio), Laurel (Private Terms Stakes), Sam Houston Park (Texas Heritage Stakes), Sunland Park (Mine That Bird Stakes), Fonner Park (Baxter Stakes, at 15k). 5 tracks total.
*Top category belongs to the top tracks with Graded races pointing the way: Turfway Park (Spiral), Fair Grounds (LA Derby), Golden Gate (El Camino Real), Oaklawn Park (Arkansas Derby), Santa Anita (SA Derby), Tampa Bay Downs (TB Derby), Gulfstream (FL Derby), Aqueduct (Wood Memorial), Keeneland (Blue Grass). 9 in all.
Right now, as I type this I envision the point system to go this way:
Category 1: 100 for first, 50 for 2nd, 25 for 3rd, 10 for 4th.
Category 2: 250-125-50-25
Category 3: 500-350-125-50
Category 4: 1000-500-250-125
Earnings from non-restricted races will continue to break ties.
Hold these thoughts, and continue to read, if you’re still with me.
The other system I’m folding into this is, again, based on geography. Musing on the list of tracks, I created 6 divisions, listed by division title, track, and appropo point category, 1 being lowest, 4 the highest. 39 different tracks in all.
*Empire State: Aqueduct (4), Belmont (2), Saratoga (2)
*California: Santa Anita (4) Golden Gate (4) Del Mar (2)
*Bluegrass: Keeneland (4), Turfway Park (4), Churchill Downs (2)
*Florida: Gulfstream (4), Tampa Bay Downs (4), Calder (2)
*Gulf Coast: Delta Downs (2), Evangeline Downs (1), Fair Grounds,(4) Oaklawn Park (4), Louisiana Downs (1)
The sixth division consist of all smaller tracks, whose best race is of the ungraded variety. These are broken into subdivisions just for the sake of demonstration:
*Midatlantic: Colonial Downs (1), Laurel Park (3),
Monmouth (1), Pimlico (3)
*Ohio Valley: Woodbine (1), Mountaineer (1), Presque Isle (1), Thistledown (1)
*Midwest: Araphoe Park (1), Fonner Park (1) (2 races), Prairie Meadows (1), Canterbury (1), Arlington Park (1)
*West: Emerald Downs (1), Hastings Racecourse (1), Assiniboia (1), Northlands (1), Portland Meadows (1)
*Southwest: Sam Houston Park (3),Remington Park (1), Sunland (3), Zia Park (1)
Eligibility to the Kentucky Derby would be based on division. The top 4 in each division would be either starters (top 20) then also-eligible (next 4 out) Ties would be broken by non-restricted stakes earnings. If and when there are defections, the horses in the also-eligible column move up regardless of division. If that list of 4 is exhausted, then the onus would fall to the next horse(s) with the next most Derby points regardless of division.
Yes, it would be rather competitive between the minor 22 tracks to compete for 4 spots but those are my rules.
The system is automatic by nature. Top 24 in Derby points get in, with the top 20 making the show. Here’s the real-life matter: there will be horses who run in more than one division, and likely in 3 or more. So it becomes a matter of both pride and dollars to determine which division to represent. If you have a place in the top 4 in your division, you have a say. But it must be in a division in either the division it was bred in, or the division it earned the most points in. A claim must be filed by a connection on a certain day (call it Derby Decision Day) to lock this in and make it official.
The final result: Equal representation from tracks, large and small, all across North America, in arguably the most storied race on the continent.
In the attached table I’ve gone a bit deeper to list the races involved, and the approximate date and value of the race based on the research I did this past week. Some info, of course, may be inaccurate. Hey, it’s the Internet. But I’m sure the margin in error is slight, as I am using 2013 stakes schedules.
That’s enough for one post right there. Next, to help flesh out the details, I’ll outline the calendar as to what the enlightened version of the Trail would look like in that format, and then see which of this year’s Triple Crown nominees would be eligible. Granted I don’t have access to earnings but I can tell you by points who’d belong.