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.