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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


By Peter Applebee — SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 13, 2021 — We made it! The 2021 Kentucky Derby qualification process is over, sort of.  We won’t know which 20 horses will be in the starting gate until entries are drawn in two weeks. What we do know is that no more qualifying points will be awarded.

The Arkansas Derby and the Lexington Stakes were the final pieces of the Derby points puzzle. The 2021 prep process has come full circle since it began on September 5th, 2020 at Churchill Downs.

That’s right, the 2021 prep process began seven months ago with the running of the Iroquois Stakes on the 2020 Kentucky Derby undercard, courtesy of a world-wide pandemic.  

This year’s Derby prep path included thirty-five races in the United States,  one in Dubai, seven in Europe and four in Japan, an international movable feast of entrants for “America’s Race.”

This year, the Kentucky Derby points system celebrated its ninth birthday, having begun prior to the 2013 Run for the Roses. So, has the points system been a good thing? Here’s a look from three angles:

Has it been good for racing overall? Has it been good for the Derby? Did it have a negative impact on the traditional Derby prep races?

Before discussing the merits let me be up-front that Churchill Downs has the right to construct a system by which horses qualify for the Derby – their race. It’s no different than a condition written for any other race.

It’s different because it’s slightly more complicated, but then there is no other race like the Derby.

The points system does help racing overall. The Kentucky Derby is the most popular horse race in the country and a coveted prize throughout the world;  the Breeders’ Cup doesn’t get nearly the same coverage as the Derby. 

The Kentucky Derby is the “Superbowl” of racing. The points system is easy to follow for casual viewers and racing fans. Qualifying points is a nice ongoing storyline. 

The more eyes on the Derby, the wider the gateway to attract new fans.  As a result, the points system is definitely a positive development. And as for its impact on the Derby – the points system improves the Derby by getting more of the “best” horses into the starting gate. 

The points system awards the most points to the top four finishers in the later, major preps, which gives added weight to the races that are closest to the first Saturday in May.

The pre-2013 qualification system was based on stakes earnings.  That system didn’t ensure that the horses who were peaking in the spring of their three year old year could get into the Derby starting gate. Win a rich juvenile sprint and a precocious baby could make the cut.

As for its impact on prep races themselves, I don’t see negatives. Typically, qualification for a race is not based on performances at different tracks but that is what typically happens; purse levels reflect graded status, races that attract the best horses. 

Some races have been elevated by their inclusion into the points system.  I wouldn’t include the Jeff Ruby “Steaks” because it’s run on a synthetic surface and the involvement of the UAE Derby doesn’t quite add up, politics notwithstanding.

But their inclusion as sizable points preps does add luster to those events. That leads to the one area that I don’t care for; why have a European and Japanese road to the Derby? I get it…handle! Otherwise, it just doesn’t seem necessary.

As with the Jeff Ruby, the European races are not contested on dirt, it’s either a synthetic surface or turf. The Japanese Road is contested on dirt but do we think a Japanese-based horse really adds something to the Derby beyond increasing handle?

These international routes have only produced one runner since they began several years ago, but it’s nothing to get too hung up on.

The points system gets the right horses in the gate, increases public interest, and provides horsemen and owners a clear path to follow to earn those magical 40 points that should get your horse into the race. Given some recent defections, Rombauer enters the race at #20 with 34 points.

Now comes the really difficult task; figuring out how to win the race, a much narrower path than making it into the gate itself.

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3 Responses

  1. Peter makes a number of good points about getting into the derby. The old system allowed tracks to influence the final list more by raising the purse on a prep. This system makes much more sense. Thanks for another great article.

  2. Gentlemen, agreed that money should not be the overarching barometer but I’ve become a fan of the series of international roads worldwide that leads to the Derby. International racing is a trend and will become more so when the Lasix ban exists everywhere in the U.S.– if the horsemen don’t find a laissez faire government official to deregulate as they do in industry.

    Beyond that, the trend is growing, especially since the U.S. and its horseplayers have made turf racing more popular than ever; the handle proves it. Whatever is the preferred surface all over the world, horses transition all the time. Rock Your World went from unraced on dirt to one of the Derby favorites off one race. It’s a matter of when, not if. in my view. And speaking of handle.

    The Japanese cannot wager on an international race unless a Japanese horse runs in it. Some weeknights in the Orient, especially Hong Kong–I know, I know–handle often reaches the U S equivalent of eight figures. Can’t blame the track for trying, not even CDI.

    Someday, a Japanese horse will master the Derby. (Sometimes I just can’t help myself).

  3. JP,

    That’s a good point regarding the use of Lasix (or lack thereof) and the potential long term impact on international horses competing in the US. It is certainly something that will bear scrutiny as we go forward.


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