I just got through watching a replay of the “pulsating finish” of the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap as Ron the Greek took to the inside and won … again. He’s this year’s Blame. He’s that horse that doesn’t inspire much emotion. He’s the Tim Duncan of this year’s horses, the Big Fundamental, uses the glass when necessary, lays up instead of dunks. Great to see him lay one in as Churchill Downs recently threw down a slam dunk.
We’re two weeks out from Churchill’s revved up points system to qualify for the Kentucky Derby and the reaction has been mainly positive on the one hand, and oddly unsettling on the other. I figured the racing press would be holding hands, playing Red Rover, and singing by the jukebox over the new system. But then I remembered it’s the racing press and the only thing that makes the collective racing press happy is a 9-race card and a three-day carryover.
Ray Paulick put it nicely, “Goodness gracious. You’d think the folks at Churchill Downs have ruined the horse racing industry’s most famous event, the Kentucky Derby, judging by some of the hand-wringing that’s been going on since a new qualifying points system was announced last week.
“I happen to think the Road to the Kentucky Derby is a brilliant, innovative, long-overdue move that eventually will extend the time the general sports fan and sports media pay attention to horse racing.”
The nay-sayers cry that “two-year-old races don’t mean anything anymore!” and “what about the Sunland Derby! Then Mine That Bird doesn’t get into the Derby!” “Charismatic never would’ve gotten in!” “What if my horse is sore and can’t run, has two-year-old earnings and needs just one prep to get into the Derby? Now he can’t?”
Blah, blah, blah.
Let’s address that first quandary.
Juvenile Races Don’t Mean Anything Anymore!
Completely false. Trainers will tell you that a two-year-old base is still important to the development of a horse (though this has been changing of late). Those “prestigious” two-year-old races like the Sanford, Hopeful, Champagne, and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile still hold tremendous value, just not Derby value.
They are still Grade 1s, people. Trainers and owners still need to run in these races for the money and for the potential stud value. As Good Ol’ Pete told me, “Owners don’t run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile because they want to run in the Derby! They want to run because it’s a ton of money and they want to run in the Breeders’ Cup!”
Can’t tell you how happy I am to see those races devalued from a Derby perspective.
What About the Sunland Derby!
John Scheinman wrote that without the graded earnings from the Sunland Derby then Mine That Bird doesn’t pull off a shocker. Looking backward to discredit the new system makes no sense. Horses will now take the necessary paths to ensure qualification. Under the old system, Mine That Bird had graded earnings as a two year old and snagged more with the Sunland Derby. In 2013? He’d have to run an extra race.
By condensing the qualifying races they are ensuring that top horses run against one another multiple times. This is the only way newer fans will latch onto this game. Horses can’t back into the Kentucky Derby anymore. You’re going to have to run through the big boys. When you get in, dammit, you F#$%@!^% earned it.
There won’t be a Boise State situation where horses run in an inferior conference, go unbeaten, then get whooped. No Keyed Entrys and Trinnibergs getting in here, no sprinters running for the sake of running.
This gives us a playoff system where the schedule is more or less dictated to trainers. Will it be tough for them? I don’t think so. These guys are smart and will pick their spots accordingly.
The next tweak? Horses with the highest points get dibs on the best post position. But for now, let’s hold up our drinks say and put another dime in the jukebox, baby.