If I had to use a single word to describe the impact of Churchill Downs’ recent replacement of its long-time, earnings based Kentucky Derby eligibility system with one based on points accumulated by the top four finishers in a selected subset of races that previously qualified Derby starters, that word would be SMACKDOWN!
While there are many positive aspects of the new system -- which I agree should do a better job of getting stronger Triple Crown candidates into the starting gates -- I keep wondering why they went out of their way to play the villain.
Why apply a hammer-lock to Hawthorne’s Illinois Derby -- and put a strangle–hold on Saratoga’s Hopeful – when they could have taken them to the mat simply by assigning them fewer points relative to races they believe would produce the strongest Derby field?
So I decided to find out if any other commentary circulating through cyberspace shared my concerns and/or offered fresh perspectives worth considering. I managed to locate several worth referencing:
Steven Crist’s reaction was as swift as it was strong in his “Crist: Kentucky Derby qualifying plan a good start, but needs adjustments.” (http://www.drf.com/news/crist-kentucky-derby-qualifying-plan-good-start-needs-adjustments)
“The new plan … was a sincere and partially successful attempt to remedy some of these problems. What Churchill presented, however, was an over-reaching and sometimes self-serving plan that introduces new inequities …”
“Churchill also clearly and heavy handedly is trying to promote properties that it owns at the expense of tradition and common sense.”
“Churchill also looks petty by excluding the $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne entirely from this scheme. …
… Suspicious minds would say that it also has something to do with the fact that Churchill-owned Arlington Park just had a bitter Chicago-area dates dispute with Hawthorne and that stripping its crosstown rival’s biggest race of any Derby-qualifying significance is payback. …”
Somewhat more succinct, but no less eloquent in his “Churchill wields heavy hand in new Derby grading system,” (http://www.lvrj.com/sports/churchill-wields-heavy-hand-in-new-derby-grading-system-159986135.html) Richard Eng wrote, “Overall, I like most of the new "Road to the Kentucky Derby." However, it clearly shows Churchill Downs is the 2,000-pound gorilla in horse racing. The Kentucky Derby is theirs to do with as they please, and if you don't play nice with them, you can be downgraded - or eliminated - with the stroke of a pen.”
Specifically, he opined, “The most obvious wrong is deleting the Illinois Derby from the point schedule. This clearly is a political slap to the face of the Carey family, owners of Hawthorne Racecourse.
If there were a commissioner of the sport, he would overrule this item in the best interest of horse racing.”
Hardly a happy camper in his “Scheinman: New Derby qualifying plan a bad idea,” (“http://www.paulickreport.com/news/ray-s-paddock/scheinman-new-derby-qualifying-plan-a-bad-idea/) John Scheinman wrote, “What we have gotten, … , is Churchill Downs attempting to shape racing outside the realm of its jurisdiction using the overwhelming importance of the Kentucky Derby as its muscle.
Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger made a key point in his comments to Bloodhorse: ‘It's not leaving the horse alone, leaving the trainer alone, and letting them plot their own course to get there. This way, once again, racetracks are starting to use horses to fit their agenda instead of allowing trainers to develop horses.’”
“It looks pretty blatant why the Illinois Derby was left out of the new Kentucky Derby paradigm. Representatives from Arlington Park, owned by Churchill Downs Inc., went before the Illinois Racing Board last September and tried to have Hawthorne’s spring racing dates killed.
They failed. Now it’s payback time.”
Perhaps the best question was posed by Teresa Genaro in her recent “The New Road to the Kentucky Derby.” (http://www.forbes.com/sites/teresagenaro/2012/06/21/the-new-road-to-the-kentucky-derby/),” when she wrote “A bigger question is why the organizers of a premier, wildly successful sporting event like the Kentucky Derby, an event that already captures the imagination—and dollars—of an audience far beyond its core base, would make a radical change to its qualifying system based on the opinions of 300 people with, apparently, little knowledge of the sport itself.”
She concluded with, “Without question is that Churchill Downs now exerts complete control over who qualifies for its signature race. It didn’t consult with other tracks or racing organizations as it considered changing the qualifying system, and in the fractured world of Thoroughbred racing, it didn’t have to.”
In my opinion, the thrust going forward should be on making a good idea better while continuing to honor racing tradition which also strengthens the Derby’s hold on America’s racing consciousness.
Should CDI be proactive about strengthening the Kentucky Derby field? Yes. Should the greater contribution of some races to competitive performances in Triple Crown events be acknowledged at the expense of those that have not? Yes. Is a race’s Graded Stakes designation a sufficient measure of its contribution to Triple Crown performances? Not currently.
Until the American Graded Stakes (AGS) committee lives up to its responsibility to accurately and apolitically assess the level of competition as well as the likelihood of competitive future performances by its participants, I believe CDI is within its authority to consider different interpretations of race grading, but not unilaterally. The same groups that determine Eclipse Award winners are probably a better choice than CDI executives to rank Derby qualifying races.
If races are to be eliminated from consideration, then objective race elimination criteria need to be established beforehand, e.g., a race at a mile or over which hasn’t produced a TC event participant for 2 consecutive years, or a race at 7 furlongs or under that didn’t produce a TC event participant during the previous year.
As I see it, the main flaw in the existing CDI proposal is its absolute dependence upon race chronology. The emphasis on recency and distance seems valid to me as well as the idea of having more Derby participants that have previously faced one another. Assuming race elimination criteria are in place, all graded stakes NOT RESTRICTED BY SEX that formerly qualified Derby starters should continue to do so with decreasing point sets assigned on the basis of tiers established or confirmed by Eclipse Award voters.
The idea that the most likely Triple Crown candidates will come from among the top 4 finishers in the top 5 Derby preps run 6 to 3 weeks prior at 9 furlongs, i.e., the Arkansas Derby, Bluegrass Stakes, Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, and Wood Memorial, makes a lot of sense to me and should comprise the top tier.
I can also see where the top 4 finishers of another 5 Derby Preps run 7 to 4 weeks prior at 9 furlongs or more, i.e., the Illinois Derby, Louisiana Derby, Spiral Stakes, Sunland Derby, and UAE Derby, might be the next most likely TC candidates and could comprise the second tier.
The top 4 finishers in shorter or earlier route preps including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Breeders’ Futurity, Champagne, Fountain of Youth, Gotham, Kentucky Jockey Club, Norfolk, Rebel, Risen Star, Robert B. Lewis, San Felipe, and Tampa Bay Derby, could be considered legitimate competition in the third tier.
To a lesser extent, so could the top 4 finishers in the Derby Trial, Delmar Futurity, Hollywood Futurity, Hopeful, Jerome, and Lexington in the fourth tier.
To an even lesser extent, so could the top 4 finishers in the Arlington Futurity, Delta Jackpot, El Camino Real, Holy Bull, Grey, LeComte, Lexington, Remsen, Sam F. Davis, Sham, Smarty Jones, Southwest, and Withers Stakes in the fifth tier.
Finally, all remaining graded stakes not previously eliminated at any distance on any surface should comprise a sixth tier of competition.
With such a measured and cooperative approach that reflects respect for both tradition and the industry, CDI could exchange the stigma of a bully for the mantle of a hero.