Tuesday, March 19, 2013
The Currency of Eligibility
LOS ANGELES, March 16, 2013--At last count, only *four 3-year-olds are confirmed as starters for the Grade I Florida Derby. [Ed. Note: *Subsequently, a fifth has been added to the list]
But given the new currency for Kentucky Derby eligibility there is no way only five horses will be entered; even if the top three are among the highest-rated contenders on most published Derby lists.
With 40 points awarded for second place, can even Todd Pletcher afford not to try for both qualifying opportunities?
Under the old system, trainers were free to run in graded events at any distance, on any surface, at either age 2 or 3 and their horse’s accumulated earnings determined its eligibility.
The primary inequity of that system was the lack of uniformity in purses by grade (and in grading) and in their distribution among the top finishers. Another was the ability to qualify by winning a single race with an inflated purse relative to the quality of the field.
Still another were gimmicks like New York’s padding of 2YO graded stakes at Saratoga with bonuses for breaking maiden at Belmont, effectively making qualifiers out of races for non-winners.
Some have argued that this attempted gaming of the system incentivized Churchill Downs’ approach toward the exclusion of Hawthorne Race Course in the new system.
The primary weakness of the former system was that the excessive number of qualifying events tended to reduce both field size and level of competition in those preps as well as the likelihood that starters would face one another prior to the Derby. Another was that horses which had not proven themselves either sufficiently talented or prepared, were not only keeping some legitimate Triple Crown contenders out of the Derby but compromised the chances of those that did get in.
While the new system reduces the inequities of the one it replaces, it hasn’t yet eliminated them. Win-And-You’re-In (WAYI) is still alive and well. While such events can produce an Animal Kingdom, more often than not, they can also produce one-hit-wonders or horses that cannot survive the stress of the subsequent Triple Crown campaign.
In replacing earnings with points, the CDI team did a good job of distributing them among the top 4 finishers with the 10-4-2-1 ratio that approximates purse distribution.
In my opinion, it is superior to the roughly 3-2-1-0 ratio -- variously adjusted for grade level -- employed by the Breeders’ Cup.
[I compared the latter (and a variation of it) with earnings here at HRI last year]
Rather than assigning "grades" to qualifying races, levels of competition are now associated with races occurring in specific pre-derby blocks of time. The most "productive" block for Derby winners figures to be the one from 5.5 to 2.5 weeks prior to the Derby, as horses participating in these races are considered more likely to win the Derby.
The current maximum multiplier of 10 is applied to the basic point ratio for races scheduled in that period and is expected to attract the strongest fields.
The next highest multiplier of 5 is applied in the block from 9.5 to 5.5 weeks out, the current group of races. Most horses participating in these races are expected to start in the final round as well.
Most Derby starters will have qualified during these two intervals. The WAYI effect may reward the 50 point winners and 40 point 2nd place finishers as well as the 100 point winners.
The lowest multiplier of 1 is applied to the initial period from 31.5 to 9.5 weeks out that includes all the 2-year-old qualifiers that can provide a potential Triple Crown performer with a "foundation," just as some early 3-year-old preps that have rarely produced Derby starters.
Much has been made of the BC Classic’s point value not exceeding those of other juvenile races. I support that approach. However, with the same subjectivity that includes England’s no-turns Royal Lodge on turf as a qualifier, so should the 2YO male voted the Eclipse Award winner also be credited with the equivalent of an additional win in some other possible point category -- as opposed to creating another WAYI race. The juvenile champion should have to run well at 3 to qualify for the Derby.
A multiplier of 2 is applied to the final block starting 2.5 weeks out. It is a final opportunity to qualify for contenders who came up short during the previous two intervals. (Charismatic was the last Derby winner from that interval).
Politics notwithstanding, team CDI came up with a logical system with more to like than dislike. If a Triple Crown Champion should emerge, CDI will deserve a share of that credit. The 20 Derby starters and the non-starters, too, will provide plenty of fuel for suggested tweaks from horsemen and fans alike.
I’m interested to see what the effects of applying alternative interval multipliers might be, particularly if the results suggest that eliminating WAYI situations might create even stronger fields. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the subsequent performances of those failing to qualify would support any such speculation.
As we approach the most significant preps at the end of March, if four proves to be a crowd in the Florida Derby starting gate, then the spotlight will focus intensely on any trainer who leaves his yet-to-qualify Derby hopeful in its stall on March 30.
[Ed. Note: *Edit made prior to posting, March 19]