The Kentucky Derby qualifying system took some hits in its first few seasons. Arguably, it got it almost perfectly right this year. When the gate is loaded on May 6, as many as 16 or 17 starters of the 20 starters will have wins in points-worthy prep races. Still, there is room for minor tweaking. The 10-point races early in the new year need to be at least doubled in value. There is no stronger argument for this than the fact that the first three finishers in the Holy Bull--Irish War Cry, Gunnevera and Classic Empire--are likely to be among the top four or five betting favorites in Louisville.
The system works! How many things in society can we say that about? However short the list is, add the Kentucky Derby qualifying points to it.
At the end of the 26 qualifying races in 2017 and before attrition sets in, 20 hopefuls have at least 40 points. Conquest Mo Money also earned 40 points in the Arkansas Derby but is not nominated and will not be. His connections say they will wait for the Preakness.
Four horses won two qualifiers: Gormley (Sham and Santa Anita Derby), Irish War Cry (Holy Bull and Wood) and Girvin (Risen Star and Louisiana Derby) are set to go on May 6. El Areeb, who took the 10-point Jerome and Nashua, has gone into the shop for repairs.
Fifteen of the current top 16 will enter the Churchill Downs starting gate with a win in a prep race. The exception, State of Honor, earned his berth with a second or third in three qualifying stakes.
A compelling case cannot be made for any of those on the waiting list. A mild argument could be mounted for Royal Mo, currently 24th. He is the only points-race winner (the Robert B. Lewis, in which eventual Blue Grass winner Irap ran second) still not in the starting gate and he still might get in.
Chad Brown has indicated Cloud Computing, one of those in the final four to qualify, will also wait for the Preakness, according to reports. This would allow Untrapped to join the field and move Royal Mo to third alternate. Todd Pletcher is reportedly wavering on Malagacy, who got the staggers in the final yards of the nine-furlong Arkansas Derby. Pletcher always has felt Malagacy would be a superior sprinter/miler. If Pletcher opts out with him, second alternate Lookin at Lee joins the field.
The Racing Form has reported UAE Derby winner Thunder Snow is expected to make the trip stateside but there has been no definitive statement to that effect. If he comes 16 of the 20 starters will have won a major prep.
While the points system functioned ideally this season, there is room for improvement. Another look should be taken at doubling the value of 10-point races early in the season. Gormley, Irish War Cry and Girvin each won one of these before tacking on 100-point scores in the final stage.
The first three finishers in the 10-point Holy Bull were Irish War Cry, Gunnevera and Classic Empire. They will likely be among the top four or five favorites in Louisville. So the calendar should not be the ultimate determination of the value of a race.
What would be wrong with the 2-year-old points races staying at 10 to the winner and the early 3-year-old stakes offering 20?
One other tweak: the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile should be â€śWin and Youâ€™re In.â€ť Itâ€™s the only true championship race for the generation prior to the Derby.
More is more
Itâ€™s always reassuring when someone respected echoes an opinion you have been espousing.
Cot Campbellâ€™s Dogwood Stable transformed thoroughbred ownership by introducing the concept of multi-participant partnerships in 1969. Over the years, he has raced hundreds of top quality runners and brought countless new blood to the sport. He opined in a guest column in the Thoroughbred Daily News, â€śIn a game that has its own sizeable set of challenges, it is not desirable that the runners keep trending towards less racing. I hate that. And it will be a trend that will be difficult to reverse.â€ť
Campbell offered that if a young trainer going out on his own were to take out an ad saying that he does not think the average racehorse runs as often as he could, so the philosophy of his stable will be horses are going to run more and train less, while getting the best possible care, he would become instantly in demand. â€śThere is a message that much of the horse world has hungered for,â€ť Campbell wrote. â€śI believe that young man or woman would be swamped with business.â€ť
All I can add is â€śAmen.â€ť
Keeneland close to perfect
Keeneland has a deserved reputation of being a showplace of thoroughbred racing, the track that does things right. I donâ€™t have a bucket list but one of the things I want to do before descending to the wrong side of the turf course is to visit the Lexington, Kentucky track. This said, even the best can be made better.
The spring meeting, which is breaking records, provides three examples. The decision to exile will-pays for daily doubles, pick threeâ€™s and other exotic bets to a quick flash on the TV screen is not well thought out. Most wagering is now done at simulcast facilities where races from many tracks are telecast, sometimes simultaneously.
Speaking from experience, itâ€™s easy to miss Keeneland will-pays because another race was in progress. The unfortunate aspect is Keeneland fixed what wasnâ€™t broken. The former system of displaying will-pays on a constant cycle was one of the most useful in racing. Keeneland won awards for its simulcast presentation.
The use of white saddle cloths in stakes races is a throwback to earlier times but it makes no more sense than going back to the days when Keeneland didnâ€™t have a race caller. Bettors have become accustomed to looking for colored saddle cloths to follow their horses. In stakes races, this is beyond challenging. It doesnâ€™t help that at most simulcast sites, the audio of the race call is turned off.
The counter-argument is there are always the racing silks. However, so many are similarly colored this isnâ€™t as easy as it can be made out to be, especially when the field is on the backstretch.
The front-loading of major stakes is essential in the fall to fit into Breedersâ€™ Cup preparations. There is no compelling need for this in the spring. The Blue Grass, of course, has to be four weeks out from the Derby to appease contemporary training techniques. This also would apply to the filly equivalent, the Ashland.
Other major Keeneland stakes would be better spaced out throughout the short session. As it is, there are more than a half dozen stakes the first weekend and almost that many again the following weekend. Then just three are spaced out over the final two weeks.
One justification could be that these races are scheduled to serve as stepping stones for the plethora of stakes on Oaks and Derby days at Churchill. But with the exception of the Derby and Oaks, the Keeneland stakes are as prestigious or more so than anything offered at Churchill Downs the first weekend in May.
The will-pay and white saddle cloth issues can and should be dealt with before the fall session. The spring stakes schedule can be adjusted next year. Keeneland owes it to its fans, local and simulcast, to do the right thing by them.