Point system sets Kentucky Derby field
The "Road to the Kentucky Derby" begins this fall and is intended to build advance fan interest for the Derby on May 4. The scoring system will allow horses to begin earning points as 2-year-olds in designated races this fall.
Churchill management believes the new structure organizes the preps into the equivalent of a regular season and playoffs, to which fans can relate.
"People understand the Derby is the Super Bowl of racing, but they don't understand what the 'league' structure is and what the series is to get there," track president T. Kevin Flanery said. "We think this is a very easily understandable series and season that the fan can follow. … This is about the future. This is about how people will find their way to the Derby in 2013 and beyond. That's the exciting thing. People will have to make decisions about what the best path is."
Under the new system, Churchill staff selects which races count toward points. The plan calls for 36 races, as opposed to about 185 races worldwide that counted toward Derby selection under the previous arrangement.
The campaign of races leading up to the Derby is being divided into four phases.
The first is called the Kentucky Derby Prep Season, typically spanning stakes from late September through late February. This portion of the "regular season" will feature a 10-4-2-1 point scale for the top four finishers.
Next is the first of a three-phase Kentucky Derby Championship Season, which typically will span the 10-week run-up to the Derby. The phase highlights mostly traditional prep races . Those races will offer a 50-20-10-5 point scale.
That's followed by the most important phase of the Kentucky Derby Championship Season. The races in this stage encompass the biggest events: the Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby, Toyota Blue Grass and Louisiana Derby, while also including the $2 million U.A.E. Derby in Dubai.
Those races will offer a 100-40-20-10 point scale.
Finally, there's a last chance "wild-card" setup which features Keeneland's Lexington Stakes, two weeks before the Derby, and Churchill Downs' opening-night Derby Trial, a week before the Kentucky Derby. The point acrewed in this phase (20-8-4-2) likely won't be enough to get a horse in the Derby, but it could put a "bubble" horse over the top.
• No race less than a mile in distance will count toward Derby points.
• The Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner (as well as the winners of big-money races such as the $1 million
Delta Jackpot) won't be guaranteed a Derby berth.
• No races restricted to fillies will count toward Derby points.
• The $1 million Kentucky Oaks will have a parallel system, but with some sprints included in the series determining which 14 3-year-old fillies start. If a filly runs in a designated Derby prep, any points earned there will count toward both the Derby and Oaks.
• If two or more horses have the same number of points, the tie-breaker becomes earnings in non-restricted stakes races, whether they are graded or not.
Churchill management says it is striving to get the 20 horses that are in the best form and most qualified to perform well at the Derby's 1¼-mile distance. To do so, Churchill will switch from graded-stakes earnings as the method for preference in the case of an overflow field.
Graded stakes are those designated as the best in North America by a committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. Under the old system, earnings that met international standards also applied toward Derby preference. Such earnings counted no matter the distance or surface of the race.
Under the new system, no sprint stakes will count toward points, and points will be heavily weighted toward the 1 1/8-mile preps in late March and April. For instance, the $1 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile — whose winner was guaranteed to have enough earnings to make the Derby field under the old system — is worth the same points as an early 3-year-old prep such as Tampa Bay Downs' Sam F. Davis and Oaklawn's ungraded Smarty Jones.
The only grass race that will count for points is Newmarket's Royal Lodge Stakes held in late September in England. The only other non-U.S. races that will count are Canada's Grey Stakes for 2-year-olds and Dubai's U.A.E. Derby in late March.
Since 1975 - the year after a record 23 horses ran in the centennial Derby - Churchill has limited the field to 20 horses. Earnings in some fashion have been used to set the field ever since, with only graded earnings used since 1986.
Why the change?
"(To see) if we can create some new fans for racing, that's the primary driving motive," said Robert L. Evans, Churchill Downs Inc.'s chairman and chief executive officer."
"There are 40,000-something races in the U.S." he said. "We're not going to go out and make all of those immediately popular to the 300 million people who live here. Let's start small."
NBC broadcasts the Triple Crown races. Jon Miller, the president of programming for NBC Sports and its NBC Sports Network, called the change "inspired."
"We're very proud of our association with all three (Triple Crown) locations," he said. "But the Derby is obviously the linchpin of everything we do in horse racing. We think this concept makes the sport even stronger."
Miller compared the process to golf's Ryder Cup competition between the United States and Europe, where fans might not be able to recite the point structure but they understand the tournaments mean more to qualifying as the event draws closer.
"The problem (with the old system) is horses go all over the country and may race at a track against inferior competition just for a big payday," he said. "Here, the best horses are racing against each other. It's not too dissimilar to the way the U.S. determines its Ryder Cup team. It's easy for fans to follow. They know if the best golfers are playing well in the best golf tournaments, they're going to qualify to represent the U.S. team in the Ryder Cup. We think that's critical.
"It builds the storylines, the matchups. Now you'll have these great horses who have already raced against each other before you get to Churchill Downs and the Preakness. You'll have the rivalries built in. Think of Tiger and Phil. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon."
Miller said he hoped many of the prep races would be shown on NBC Sports Network.
The new system takes a page from NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series and the PGA's FedEx Cup but is its own unique model, according to Flanery.
"We looked at every sport that uses points, leagues," Flanery said. "We looked very closely at the things they did right, and the things we thought maybe didn't work so well. I guess the key message we got out of all of that was try to keep it simple."
Churchill management said its marketing survey showed that 83% of sports fans did not understand what horses must do to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. The track believes the points system is easier for fans to follow than the earnings. Many casual fans did not know what graded-stakes are.
Flanery said Churchill took pains "to be very respectful to the history of the (prep) races and the geographical diversity."
Churchill showed no favoritism toward the tracks it owns. For instance, Arlington Park's Arlington-Washington Futurity and Churchill Downs' Iroquois are not part of the point system.
Flanery said the track, particularly communications director Darren Rogers, did extensive research to determine how various prep races contributed to the Derby outcome. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the Illinois Derby, worth $500,000 this year and which produced 2002 Derby winner War Emblem, is not a points race.
Evans says the new method provides greater stability among the prep races.
It eliminates the problem of a track jacking up the purse money offered for a less prestigious race in order to ensure its winner (and potentially runner-up) automatically gain entry into the Derby no matter the horse's other qualifications.
Churchill management also will have complete control over the races it uses in the selection process, no longer beholden to outside entities such as the committee that awards graded-stakes status.
"We're big on history and tradition," Evans said. "But if that's all we do, then there's never any innovation. This will be fun, right? This will be controversial. Everyone will have an opinion and want to express it. We'll be the dumbest people on the planet. We'll be the smartest people on the planet. … It's OK to try something and it doesn't work. The ones that do work, we'll keep as part of it."
Churchill officials say they did modeling to see how past fields would have been impacted under the new method . However, they stress that also is misleading because owners and trainers of Kentucky Derby candidates could have chosen different paths for their horses had the new rules had been in place.
Rogers said that in all the versions seriously explored, the top 15 horses were the same under both a point system and the graded-earnings method, with only the final two to five horses gaining entry to the Derby fluctuating among the models discussed.
He said "to feel safe" about making the Derby, a horse probably needs to earn 40 points.
"While it's not fair to compare previous years, if you look back at recent runnings, the 'bubble' horse had anywhere between 20 and 30 points, with non-restricted stakes serving as the important tie-breaker," Rogers said. "That still makes earnings relevant, because I would anticipate there will be ties."
The filly Eight Belles, who finished second in the 2008 Derby, would not have made the field unless she had competed against the boys at some stage. Rogers notes that of the three fillies who won the Derby — Regret in 1915, Genuine Risk in 1980 and Winning Colors in the 1988 — each ran against colts before the Kentucky Derby. In fact, Winning Colors outclassed her male competition to take the Santa Anita Derby.
The USA Today Sports Media Group, whose parent corporation Gannett also owns The Courier-Journal, is a marketing partner with Churchill Downs in Road to the Kentucky Derby and Road to the Kentucky Oaks.