In what has now become a regular HRI Feature, the HRI Readers Blog, concerned fans and horseplayers are afforded an opportunity to express their ideas either in the form of commentary or methodology they believe would improve the sport for all its practitioners.

Prior to this year’s Kentucky Derby, loyal reader and contributor Indulto authored a lengthy series [see HRI archives] on how the graded earnings system for Derby eligibility might be improved to insure that the 20 most worthy 3-year-olds occupy the 20 stalls inside the two Churchill Downs starting gates.

The following is the author’s reaction and thoughts on last week’s announcement by CDI that race eligibility would be based on the notion of merit rather than an arbitrary factor of whether or not the “worth” of certain graded races has been accidentally enhanced.

By Indulto

As regular HRI readers are aware, I’ve been advocating on these pages -- with Mr. Pricci’s gracious support and webmaster Mark’s expertise and patience -- the replacement of the Kentucky Derby’s graded stakes earnings-based eligibility system with one based on cumulative points assigned to actual in-the-money results in graded stakes.

We weighted the points based on the quality of competition rather than the size of the purses offered.

The reform we called for was intended to ensure the presence of the most accomplished 3YO runners in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby; Thoroughbreds that had consistently demonstrated relative to more stamina and soundness in multiple races suggesting their potential not only for winning the Derby but the Triple Crown series as well.

Maybe our message actually got through to Churchill Downs, maybe not. But even without official recognition, I’m gratified that their just released changes for 2013 Derby eligibility indicates they’re finally trying to achieve that objective. It not only justifies all the midnight oil burned, it also justifies HRI’s willingness to provide its readers with a forum from which their ideas and passion for issues like this one can be heard.

Still, I can’t support all parts of CDI's proposed solution as it currently stands.
Let it be understood that we had no desire to limit horsemen’s options in planning a path to the Derby, or to eliminate qualifying venues. Consequently, while my initial reaction to the announcement was optimistic, I’m still weighing its pros and cons, with the latter including what some might interpret as CDI’s attempt in becoming racing’s de facto centralized authority, at least as far as the Triple Crown series is concerned.

Indeed, Churchill Downs Inc. owns and hosts the most popular and lucrative event of the racing year. By increasing control over where Derby participants qualify -- as well as how they qualify -- CDI effectively exercises greater influence over the industry.

As an aside, had CDI also unilaterally required that no Derby starter could have previously raced with Lasix, it conceivably could have put an end to the currently raging debate over that anti-bleeding medication’s use; at least out of court.

First the good news: Now ALL Derby starters will be competitors who have performed well as 3YOs in open company at a mile and over; most of whom will have qualified against the highest quality competition at 9 furlongs within seven weeks of the event. No tolerance remains for 2YOs resting on their laurels, or fillies who have only beaten other fillies, or distance-challenged sprinters.

The Derby preps that continue to be stops along the Derby Trail also will be stronger races. Forcing more qualifiers to face each other more often prior to the Derby should create rooting interests and restore the value of the “company line” in past performance data as a handicapping tool. Having a better line on the contenders also could have the effect of boosting handle.

Most importantly, the variance at the root of the earnings–based eligibility system’s inequity has been eliminated including 1) variance in purses offered [even within grade]; 2) variance in percentages of distribution to designated orders of finish, and 3) variance in the number of finishes rewarded.

That system has been replaced with a multi-tier point system that uniformly rewards each actual top 4 placing achieved against relative levels of competition. The following table summarizes the new CDI points system:

Period 1st 2nd 3rd 4th Weeks Prior
I10421Over 10
II50201057 to 10
III1004020103 to 6
IV20842Under 3

Note that points allocated to finishes in each period are respectively multiples of those in Period I, and those points for Period III are twice those of Period II and those of Period IV are twice those of Period I. Also note that while a 2nd place finish in Period II is awarded more points than a 1st place finish in Period I, the same relationship does not continue in Period III.

Finally, note that the percentage of total points for each race that are allocated to the top 4 finishes, respectively, calculate out to approximately 58%, 24%, 12%, and 6%. Compare this distribution to the standard purse distribution allocations of 60%, 20%, 10%, and 5% [with the remaining 5% typically split among other finishes] and to the Breeders’ Cup distribution allocations of 54%, 18%, 10%, and 6%.

The bad news begins with the termination of turf races that might be easier on the limbs of developing thoroughbreds as participating qualifiers. The ability to perform well on turf and the pursuit of the Triple Crown should not be, in our view, mutually exclusive.

To paraphrase George Orwell in his novel, “Animal Farm,” many qualifying stakes are now equal, but some are more equal than others. In diminishing the importance of the Spiral Stakes, CDI seemingly closed the door on Team Valor’s recent tack of taking the path of least resistance in advance of Derby participation. Their successive success in the Spiral dwarfed the relevance of the UAE and Sunland Derbies, thereby offsetting the offerings of giant purses in those races.

By embracing the UAE Derby but denying “Championship Phase” status to the Spiral Stakes and the Sunland Derby -- as well as eliminating the Illinois Derby from participation altogether -- CDI effectively usurped responsibility from the American Graded Stakes committee which is tasked with determining the level of competition that have been and will be attracted to various racetracks for their signature events.

On the other hand, the Committee also has proven to be an instrument of U.S. breeders--and it has not distinguished itself in recent years with several controversial decisions.

Moves of this magnitude by CDI always involve a strong bottom line-improving component and fairness or concern for the greater good are seldom, if ever, factors into the equation. If it were, the obstacle/hazard presented by the rail post position would be eliminated.

I suspect this change has been in the works for some time but that the catalyst for finally taking action might well have been the NYRA’s blatant padding of its 2YO graded stakes at Saratoga with bonuses going to winners of recent maiden at Belmont Park.

The table below reflects modifications I would make to the CDI proposal to preserve its positive effects and minimize the negative aspects of the changes. (Track president Kevin Flanery has stated CDI is open to the notion of “tweaking” the new system where appropriate).

1) Create an additional “Championship Phase” 7 weeks out from the Kentucky Derby which would include the Spiral Stakes, the Sunland Derby, the UAE Derby, and the Illinois Derby--assuming they are willing to move it up 2 weeks to participate. The UAE Derby may not necessarily be a chronological exception.

2) Revise the points assigned to new periods III and IV as shown below. A 2nd place finish in Period IV would now be more valuable than a win in period II.

Period 1st 2nd 3rd 4th Weeks Prior
I10421Over 10
II4016848 to 10
IV1104422113 to 6
V20842Under 3

3) Set a minimum point total to increase the likelihood that each bettor gets a run for his money. I’d consider a reasonable floor for participation to be 20 points or the equivalent of a) 2 wins in Period I, b) a 1st in Period II, c) a 2nd in new Period III, d) a 3rd in new Period IV, or e) a 1st in new Period V. CDI should consider running a model to see how it might be used to lower field size for maximum long-term as well as immediate safety of Derby contestants.

4) NASCAR starting-grid positions are determined by qualifying performances, and sports teams compiling the best records are rewarded with the home field advantage, so why not draw for post positions in descending qualifying points total order? That would not only keep the logical betting favorites out of the rail post, it might also minimize cases of Derby Fever as well.

How these revised point assignments would fare if exercised in CDI’s model may never be known, but they are as much a political solution as a logical one. Bringing the Hawthorne Derby back into the picture offers an additional 9 furlong test on a natural dirt surface prior to period IV, while not diluting the other races assigned to Period IV as it did in the past. It also recognizes that races assigned to the new Period III really are a cut above that in Period II, but below that in new Period IV.

In my opinion, the most negative aspect of the CDI proposal is its attempt to render meaningless the signature race of Hawthorne Race Course which is the local competition for CDI’s own Arlington Park property. Is this an example of targeting a specific competitor for the contraction of racing venues that many believe is necessary for racing to survive the smaller foal crops amidst the expansion of legalized gambling?

If so, it’s time to fill the void in racing’s legitimate oversight and leadership. If the U.S. Congress, the Jockey Club, and the various alphabet groups can’t or won’t, CDI has clearly demonstrated that it can and will take the initiative.