BY INDULTO — Los Angeles, February 19, 2020–It isn’t that I personally prefer or endorse field sizes beyond 14, but I did find myself applauding Churchill Downs’ 20-20 foresight when it announced it would initiate the use of a single 20-stall starting gate for the 2020 Kentucky Derby.
This decision appears to be a response to the two most widely publicized Thoroughbred racing issues of 2019: (1) The spike in equine deaths at Santa Anita and the resultant mainstream media annexation of the anti-racing animal-rights activist agenda and (2) The unprecedented disqualification of the first-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby.
The former may well have influenced the latter.
CDI’s claim that the new gate will ensure a clean start for all contestants thereby reducing risk of injury to human and equine athletes, suggests that safety was the primary consideration.
Perhaps that was the intent but the most visible impact is increased fairness if in reality drawing the rail post no longer virtually eliminates any chance of that starter’s winning North America’s most coveted race.
While the outer posts remain statistically daunting and tactically challenging, at least the rail horse will now have room to maintain its position even if it can’t clear the field.
Admitting that the existing situation was unfair, however, is too much to expect from CDI which continues to deny dime supers to its limited-bankroll betting customer majority on Derby Day; and/or to preserve prodigious payoffs for the deep-pocketed minority.
Indeed, the industry as a whole refuses to acknowledge that lack of fairness is the key factor driving existing players away from the game while inhibiting newcomers from replacing them.
Until now, racing leadership has been allowed to dismiss the devastating impact of its collective lack of uniformity, integrity, transparency, and cooperation on the confidence and satisfaction among all its stakeholders.
The silent tilting of the playing field against recreational players, however, initiated by the practice of rebating portions of excessive takeout to the highest-volume bettors, has reduced wagering handle to the point of the game’s unsustainability without “casino dole.”
Failure to implement reform had severely weakened the underpinnings of passionate participation by the time the apparent explosion in on-track equine deaths was exploited by anti-racing zealots with powerful media and political connections.
Racing certainly was certainly back in the news but not in the hearts of the public, so that even the occasional spark of fairness must be nurtured in the hope of igniting yet another .
And one may have appeared in the over subscription to the Risen Star just run at the Fair Grounds in two divisions. Both winners received the scheduled 50 eligibility points and a full share of the original $400K purse.
That was not the case last year when the Rebel at Oaklawn Park was split to accommodate horses shut out of the San Felipe when that prep was canceled.
Those winners each received discounted shares of the purse and only 37.5 points which denied them the virtual Win-and-you’re-in (WAYI) eligibility status promised by the CDI system.
One might wonder whether Omaha Beach would have competed in the 2019 Kentucky Derby if he hadn’t been forced to qualify in the Arkansas Derby.
That’s one reason why the $400,000 Risen Star purse was maintained so that each division would be a 50-point event. Rebel points were reduced last year commensurate with the purse reduction following the splitting into divisions.
This split added a 16th opportunity to the eight preps offering 50-points-to-winner. Of course, there are seven 100-point offerings in which a single run can determine one’s Derby destiny.
It follows that horses earning 40 points or fewer for finishing second through fourth now likely will be required to earn points in some other qualifying event.
While single-prep qualifier Maximum Security was pulling away from ‘s Country House at the finish of the 2019 Kentucky Derby, the latter’s path– CH ran in two 100-pointers after finishing second in the Risen Star – could become the new normal in qualifying.
Parenthetically, there’s no need to wonder whether Country House, originally drawn in post #20, would have been closer had he broken from the new gate. Eventually, he caught up with Maximum Security in the Steward’s room.
Unfortunately, Country House never raced again and recently was retired as a result of his contracting Laminitis.
When his number was moved up it stopped the Triple Crown dead in its tracks as neither the original winner nor elevated winner showed up in either Baltimore or Elmont.
Considering that Country House finished second in the 14-horse Risen Star after breaking slowly, I suspect his accomplishments might have been more impressive had he qualified at first asking.
If the current trend continues, the new starting gate could wind up with a gate full of “win-and-you’re-in” qualifiers. And what could be fairer than that?
CDI could deal with any post-race circumstances impacting its signature event as thoughtfully as its pre-race schedule by being more forthcoming: Total transparency involving any review and/or adjudication including televised steward deliberations.
The best template I’ve seen for that appears in the thoughtful work of the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation in its August 2019 position paper: “Seeking Transparency.”
And what could be fairer than that?