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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

FEEL-GOOD DERBY COMPROMISED PRE- AND POST RACE; $1 ‘SUPER’ LIMITS FAN PARTICIPATION

By Indulto — LOS ANGELES, May 25, 2022 — Just as Mine That Bird undermined a Kentucky Derby eligibility system based on graded stakes earnings, the aptly-named Rich Strike made a mockery of the points-based system that replaced it.

The two longshots both defeated fields dominated on the tote board by winners and runners-up from recent prep races that were not only steeped in prestige and tradition, but also the focus of media attention.

Both were graduates of maiden claimers and associated with feel-good stories about unheralded connections that were revealed in the aftermath of their stirring stretch runs; each completed in a virtually identical 2:02-3/5.

Their ability and potential were barely discernible from their past performance records; a circumstance conspiring to prevent most racing fans from sharing in the shocking success they had witnessed.

There was a co-conspirator, however, in depriving the small bankroll player of meaningful participation in the proceedings: Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI) management, which reportedly failed to automatically substitute Rich Strike in advance-play exotic combinations using ALL starters once he became one.

Even if that was an oversight, CDI’s policy of suspending ten-cent-minimum superfecta wagering on Kentucky Oaks/Derby weekends — despite offering a twenty-cent Jackpot Pick Six wager – is deliberate.

The Derby Super pool was $14,854,083. After the 22% takeout, there could have been as many as 36 one-dollar tickets, each paying $321,500.10.

How many among the hundreds of thousands betting the race could make the level of investment required? Such disparity of opportunity is both oppressive and unfair to majority of Oaks-Derby bettors.

Such characterizations may seem extreme at a time when battles rage over the right of a free Ukrainian people to even exist, as well as those that strip the reproductive rights of American women. but CDI’s policies regarding this wager is arbitrary action taken against the majority of Thoroughbred racing fans.

Similarly, the invasion of Illinois racing began with CDI’s purchase of Arlington Park in 2000, but the hostilities started a decade ago with changes in the 2013 Derby eligibility rule–from graded stakes earnings.

Not only that by CDI has heavy-handedly controlled where Derby starters prep, including the exemption of the Illinois Derby run at Hawthorne Racecourse, Arlington’s Illinois rival.

The co-option was completed with the sale of the Arlington property to the Chicago Bears for the development as a football stadium. That was CDI’s second acquisition and sale to a land developer, as the storied Hollywood Park is now the home of the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams and Chargers.

The latest collection of qualifying preps and specific points awarded to the top four finishers in each continues to devalue preps for two-year-olds and some newly-turned three-year-olds.

Furthermore, their scheduling has compressed the number of days in which to gain a berth in the Derby starting gate by winning a single qualifying prep.

For the first time, three qualifying preps were run on three consecutive Saturdays, including eight 100-point preps. Last year, those preps stretched over five weekends, allowing for potentially larger fields and participation in more than one of them.

In the seven months from 09/18/2021 through 04/18/2022, a total of 2363 qualifying points were distributed through a total of 37 preps in the USA and UAE to qualify 20 starters.

Through Feb. 18 — five months after the first prep was run — 357 points had been distributed in the first 20 preps, but not one of those participants had accumulated enough points to guarantee a berth in the Derby starting gate.

During the subsequent 12 pre-Derby weeks, the 17 remaining preps distributed 2006 points; 595 of them in seven 50-pointers and 1,360 in eight 100-pointers.

Fifteen preps fully-qualified their winners and some of the eight second-place finishers, earning 40 points in 100-point races, attrition eventually created opportunities for those less accomplished also-eligibles.

Mine That Bird won a graded route as a juvenile that qualified him based on earnings. Twenty eight horses won at least one prep this year, with only 13 running in the Derby, seven of those among the first 10 finishers.

The last race for all starters was a 100-point prep where only one of them finished worse than fourth. Classic Causeway, along with Zandon, Mo Donegal, and Smile Happy, were the only juvenile point earners. All earned their Derby points as sophomores.

Barber Road, who finished second in three preps for three-year-olds and third in another, would have qualified without his last race, but certainly not beforehand.

CDI has extended its control over where starters prep and who will be allowed to train some of them. Horses from the barn of multiple Derby-winning Bob Baffert were not allowed to participate.

One doesn’t need to be a fan of Baffert to suspect the effect would reflect a lower level of competitor.

Whatever CDI’s motives were for its Derby eligibility rule changes, it joined those who resented Baffert’s unmatched ability to adapt, as his trainees finished first in four of the following nine renewals, two going on to win the Triple Crown.

Most racing fans would probably enjoy seeing a different face in the winners’ circle, but my guess is they’d rather see Baffert beaten than banned.

Personally, the issue is not whether Baffert deserved the scrutiny and the sanctions; it’s that no other powerful trainers were similarly being targeted — at least not as publicly — despite the general public’s suspicion similarly spectacular efforts.

In his piece “Wrapping Up Last Weekend and Looking Forward to Saturday’s Huge Prep Trifecta,” HRI Executive Editor, John Pricci, wrote: “I capital L love the points system. It has done its job, allowing the cream to rise on almost every occasion.”

Perhaps that’s true of the three equine superstars able to at least attempt a Triple Crown, but in the last nine preps, the cream seldom started rising prior to the 50-pointers. It certainly stopped rising for the Florida Derby winners who finished first in four of them, as the first three winners never won again.

The last winner was disqualified; the elevated winner, who didn’t win a single prep race, never raced again. The last Santa Anita Derby runners to finish first in the Kentucky Derby tested positive and was disqualified, elevating the first 50-point prep representative.

Not only did two “former” Baffert trainees start this year after qualifying in the final 100-point prep with six entrants, but four trainers started 50% of the Derby field:

Todd Pletcher and Brad Cox had 3 each Derby starters while Ken McPeek and Baffert-proxy Tim Yakteen had 2 each.

Interesting, too, that three stallions were represented by two starters each: Not This Time, Race Day, and Pioneer of the Nile. It’s not unreasonable to conclude that CDI’s Points System has limited participation to a handful of venues and trainers.

Any further comparisons with Mine That Bird ended when Rich Strike’s connections decided to skip the Preakness avoiding  a confrontation with an Oaks-winning star filly among other worthy male competitors.

In Rich Strike’s absence, Derby favorite and runnerup Epicenter fared no better as the Preakness, rallying too late to catch fresh Derby-skipping Early Voting. Perhaps the Derby’s eligibility system is also limiting Triple Crown participation as well.

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9 Responses

  1. Some thought provokers here, I. A few counterpoints:

    First, agree that room should be made for the Illinois Derby on the prep schedule and that the $1 superfecta is an exercise in greed that backfires when most rank and file horseplayers can’t afford to cover even the most logical permutations in a 20-horse field.

    Can we compromise on a 50-Cent Oaks-Derby day super? Probably a good call since both factions, whales and guppies, would walk away grumbling. Why not have as many betting participants as possible?

    As we all know, training methodologies have changed for any horseman not named Antonio Sano, who trains a very genuine throwback in Simplification. This time the stress of competition proved too much. and he suffered a bout of EIPH.

    But we’re still an unabashed fan of the points system that has resulted in a more formful Derby–the two favorites were second and third–and the race does not need a return to precocious unsustainable juvenile speed.

    That was absent this year, and still look what happened to the pace, anyway?

    Finale, as to the points system, favorite Epicenter accrued enough points to take advantage of six-weeks spacing while other trainers put all their eggs in a 100/40 point basket, and if they were good enough to make an exacta finish at 9 furlongs in the final prep, both horse and horseman deservedly belongs.

    1. JP,
      CDI’s stated reason for not allowing dime supers is that they would tie up the lines at the betting windows and terminals on their highest attendance days. If that’s really a problem, on-track patrons should be able to use smartphones and/or portable terminals to make dime super bets just like ADW customers do on-line. A smart phone app for supers on the current race only would hardly be cost prohibitvie to implement.

      I noticed that this year’s Pimlico dime supers were subject to a $1.00 minimum combination, but this impedes betting different amounts on different combinations.

      If two of eight 100 point winners finishing 2nd and 3rd constitute a “formful” Derby, then what about the other six 100 point winners, who finished 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th, 13th, and 16th?

    2. from Indulto via personal e-mail

      JP,

      CDI’s stated reason for not allowing dime supers is that they would tie up the lines at the betting windows and terminals on their highest attendance days. If that’s really a problem, on-track patrons should be able to use smartphones and/or portable terminals to make dime super bets just like ADW customers do on-line. A smart phone app for supers on the current race only would hardly be cost prohibitive to implement.

      I noticed that this year’s Pimlico dime supers were subject to a $1.00 minimum combination, but this impedes betting different amounts on different combinations.

      If two of eight 100 point winners finishing 2nd and 3rd constitute a “formful” Derby, then what about the other six 100 point winners, who finished 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th, 13th, and 16th?

  2. I,

    On very big race days virtually all tracks require a minimum of $1 worth of Dime combinations, same minimum $1 total applies to 50-Cent Tris and Pick 3s. That’s not unreasonable, only the lack of availability is…

    JP

  3. Give them hell Indulto. Thanks for speaking up on behalf of the smaller bank account players. There is no reason other than greed for not allowing ten cent SF wagers if the wagers are submitted on line. I understand limiting SF wagers to a $1 minimum at the track in order to avoid long lines at the track windows, but lines are simply not an issue with online wagers. CDI policies need to be changed.

    “Special Event” greed” is what controls at present and it is offensive against the majority of fans as you so well expressed. Control also over the where and when for Derby starter preps is equally wrong. Does CDI really need to have that much control over the field of participants. Too much power in the hands of too few is my view. Has CDI become a self appointed governance authority type structure that can operate above the interest of all others? Thanks for raising the heat I-man.

    1. Thank you, McD.

      In announcing its 2022 stakes schedule, Churchill Downs revealed that it had absconded with the last vestige of championship Thoroughbred racing in Illinois: Arlington Millions Day. Even though it has declined to run races in Illinois this year, it was recently reported that CDI will not release purse money accrued for Illinois horsemen.

      “Too much power in the hands of too few …”

      Actually I’d like to see more power in the hands of even fewer that represent the legitimate interests of all participants.

  4. response to McD via personal e-mail

    Thank you, McD.

    In announcing its 2022 stakes schedule, Churchill Downs revealed that it had absconded with the last vestige of championship Thoroughbred racing in Illinois: Arlington Millions Day. Even though it has declined to run races in Illinois this year, it was recently reported that CDI will not release purse money accrued for Illinois horsemen.

    “Too much power in the hands of too few …”

    Actually I’d like to see more power in the hands of even fewer that represent the legitimate interests of all participants.

  5. It appears a “Robert Moses” type concentration of power at present John. Wouldn’t mind if fair to all players, but agree that that is not the case at present. A very good sleeper movie that you should try to view is “Motherless Brooklyn”. Not a horseracing movie, but dead on target to this discussion of power. I think that I viewed the movie on Netflix.

    The story is about a dedicated regular type guy with integrity who is limited in life by Turrets Syndrome. He ends up taking on the all powerful Robert Moses type and it makes for a great storyline. The ref to “Lookout Point” in the movie leaves little room for the tale not to be focused on Moses himself. I will wager a twenty across the board that you and Toni will both enjoy watching it.

    The I-man and the HRi faithful as well. I just do not have that many twenties to extend the twenty offer to all however.

    At the end of the day, anyone but Moses, and any other fair minded “authority” over CDI.

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