LOS ANGELES, May 14, 2018—The fact that the heavens opened two years in succession to rain on the Kentucky Derby post parade -- and thrice since the reign of vindictive venue restriction began – might suggest to some that the cosmos has colluded with climate change to compromise the proceedings on Derby Day.

Even if a higher power isn't manifesting its displeasure, genuine concern would not be misplaced over what has arguably become a calendar-confining, creativity-crushing qualification process that imposes Churchill Downs’ concept of candidate correctness on all Derby starters.

By casting the road to the Kentucky Derby in concrete, with little accommodation for individual development and adversity, CDI may be guilty of competition constraint and career contraction among its equine campaigners.

The 144th “Run for the Roses” was the sixth time starter eligibility was determined through performances in a selected series of qualifying prep races with preference given to participation within six weeks of the main event.

No longer is eligibility based on total earnings accumulated in any combination of graded stakes races. While the latter had been independent of surface, distance, gender, and venue, the former removed turf routes, all sprints, all filly races, and certain tracks, from the equation.

Was it the success and popularity of the Kentucky Derby that emboldened the operators of the host track to usurp the power to dictate where and when runners could qualify for their race?

Or was it the determination of deep-pocketed owners to pursue their Derby dreams at almost any cost that encouraged CDI to take control of prep participation as well as the main event?

Among the eligibility inequities fans hoped would be eliminated by a new system based on points, was the effective guarantee of starting gate berths to top finishers in all the highest purse preps; some of which were seldom the source of commensurate talent; most egregiously the UAE and Sunland Derbies.

That “reform” never materialized, as CDI assigned excessive point awards to the same races, effectively making them “Win And You’re In” (WAYI) events; thereby lowering the significance of earlier preps -- even in combination -- due to the disparity in points each contributed to eligibility.

Ironically, the BC Juvenile became undervalued in the rush to reduce the relevance of races for two-year-olds.

Whatever their motivation and intent, CDI has created conditions which, in its first six years of implementation, have produced results too consistent to be considered coincidental:

1) Six consecutive Kentucky Derby-winning favorites.
2) All won a maximum points prep in its last start within 5 weeks of the Derby.
3) Three won the Florida Derby.
4) Two won the Santa Anita Derby
5) Jockey Victor Espinoza won twice
6) Trainer Bob Baffert won twice
7) Trainer Todd Pletcher qualified 21 starters including the winners of 4 Florida Derbies, 3 Wood Memorials, 2 Arkansas Derbies, 2 Louisiana Derbies, and 1 Blue Grass.

This year Pletcher engineered victories in 4 of the 7 maximum point preps; all the more impressive since he also managed to avoid running those he qualified against one another.

The flip side of Pletcher’s Derby prep successes, however, is that neither of his two Derby winners subsequently won a race, and only his Belmont winner, Palace Malice, won a Grade I stake against older horses. Incredibly, all three Florida Derby-Kentucky Derby doublers have also failed to win another race since 2013.

The obstacles created by 20-horse fields seldom deter the connections of less accomplished and/or talented performers from sacrificing their futures. Neither do they seem to have any difficulty ignoring the new reality dominated by race timing and significance reinforced annually by conditioners capable of exploiting them.

Is racing in North America sustainable with a handicap division devoid of accomplished and recognizable talent being squandered if not injured along the Triple Crown trail?

Like 2016, this year’s top three betting choices finished 1-2-3. While perpetual predictability produces popular winners, it precludes exciting upsets, and huge payoffs in many pools. That only last prep winners represent the real competition for Triple Crown aspirations under the new system is evident.

For example, the 2013 Florida Derby winner (Orb) went on to win the Kentucky Derby as the 2nd-ranked eligibility point earner. The runner-up (Itsmyluckyday) finished 15th in Louisville as the 12th-ranked qualifier.

Similarly, the 2018 Santa Anita Derby winner (Justify) won the Kentucky Derby as the 9th-ranked qualifier while the 7th-ranked runner-up (Bolt d’Oro) finished 12th, and the 26th-ranked outsider (Instilled Regard) finished 4th.

Note that in both races, the Superfecta included two horses exiting the same final prep; a pattern that has now repeated itself three times in succession.

Not only have the last prep also-rans in the above grid never won, they rarely reversed relative finish order with their fellow same last prep contestants unless trouble was a factor. Perhaps this phenomenon is due to the relative lack of incentive to attempt qualification earlier than March with so few points attainable from September through February.

Perhaps Derby fields could be strengthened by a) ensuring that such also-rans are eligible only if they're also earlier prep winners, and b) not forcing multiple early prep winners to continue developing and maintaining their fitness in qualifying races alone.

Trainers still need distance, spacing, and surface options to adjust for individuality, injury, or inclement weather.

One might wonder whether we’ll ever see another fascinating upset featuring a frantic stretch run like Mine That Bird’s in the mud, or a brilliant speed display like Secretariat’s in the sunshine as he lowered the track record by running successively faster quarters. Neither won their last prep race, and both qualified on the strength of their campaigns as two-year-olds.

In my opinion, the currency of eligibility should not be earnings or points, but victories. Derby starters should be preferred by total wins in qualified preps. Such races should be increased in number, and their significance distributed more equitably over the eight months preceding the Derby.

A horse incapable of winning at least one prep probably doesn’t belong in the Derby, but winning only one prep should not guarantee a starting berth. Points tiers would still be useful in ranking horses within each victory total level, but too great a differential between them would not support a preference based on win total.

Hopefully, Churchil Downs will consider the following changes:

1) Retain, but modify three tiers awarding 100, 50, and 10 points to winners (PTW), respectively, to 50, 40, and 30, so that any two wins would be worth more than any one of them.
2) Assign higher tiers to certain Juvenile races: 50 PTW for the BC Juvenile, and 40 for the Champagne, Breeders’ Futurity, Frontrunner, and Los Alamitos Futurity.
3) Award points only to top-four finishers who beat at least four horses
4) Add potentially high-quality opportunities to win a prep, e.g., the BC Juvenile Turf, Illinois Derby, and Frederico Tessio,with 40 PTW.
5) Either reserve the rail post in 20-horse fields for the starter with the lowest eligibility point total, or else draw for it first among the group with the lowest win total.

As Vince Lombardi is often quoted, "Winning isn’t everything; it's the only thing."