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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


The American Graded Stakes Committee meets annually to assess the relative merits of the hundreds of added money events in North America. They don’t always get it right but at least they go through the motions of trying.

Churchill Downs owes it to the horse industry to do the same with its Kentucky Derby qualifying points races. Save for the political banishment of the Illinois Derby, there have been no meaningful changes to the system since it was instituted in 2012.

It’s time for a fresh look. Once prestigious stakes, such as the Gotham, and never prestigious Sunland Derby are second tier events. Nevertheless they offer the same 50-point rewards—essentially “win and you’re in”—top prize as the typically loaded Fountain of Youth, Rebel and, it is now fair to say, Tampa Bay Derby.

The Gotham and Sunland Derby are worth 2 ½ times as many points as the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which is insane. The BC Juvenile should be a true win and you’re in, although this is the wrong year to champion this cause. The first four finishers from last November finished off the board in their return to the races.

Likewise, it’s absurd to continue to put the UAE Derby, which has never produced an in-the-money finisher in the Run for the Roses, at the same 100-point-to-the-winner level as the Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby, Arkansas Derby, Louisiana Derby, Blue Grass and Wood Memorial. (I wouldn’t strenuously argue if, off its recent renewals, the Wood Memorial was cut down a peg.)

The Santa Anita, Florida or Arkansas races have produced the Derby winner (both of them last year) every year the points system has been in existence.

From 2013 through 2018, 21-30 points was sufficient to get into the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. Last year, it jumped to 40. It appears it will take more than that in 2020. Mr. Monomoy and Modernist passed the 50-point floor with their Risen Star scores.

The problem is the top-heavy nature of the final two rounds. There are five more 50-pointers coming in the next couple of weeks. Combine the winners of these races with the Risen Star heroes and you have seven all but guaranteed slots in the Derby.

You don’t have to even win one of the seven 100-pointers to pretty much clinch a Derby berth. Second is worth 40 points. Assuming the place finishers are not earning their first points, this brings the total of likely qualifiers to 21. This is if a European or Japanese entrant doesn’t take advantage of the starting spot allocated to them. If either or both do, the number of spots for North American horses drops to 18 or 19.

The undesirable ramification of this is many of the top contenders now make only two starts before Louisville. Unless announced plans change, this will be true of Tiz the Law, Dennis’ Moment, Eclipse champion Storm the Court, Thousand Words and perhaps two or three others from the loaded Baffert barn.

As Baffert has said many times, “If they can’t get enough points in the final races, they probably don’t belong in the Derby.” He’s not the only trainer who feels this way, so there is no urgency to start a top colt more than twice before the first Saturday in May. The worst part is they are probably right as long as points are allocated as they are.

You don’t have to be old enough to remember Win Elliott and Charlsie Cantey doing Saturday stakes on TV to recall when promising Derby-age colts made a half dozen starts before the big one. The Florida road began with the Bahamas, the Everglades and Flamingo at Hialeah then the Florida Derby before shipping north for the Wood Memorial. Some would take their Florida form north early to run in the Bay Shore and Gotham before the Wood.

For those who don’t remember, these races were scheduled every two weeks, which no one thought was onerous. But what did Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Eddie Neloy, Allen Jerkens, Frank Whiteley, Hirsch Jacobs, John Gaver, Elliott Burch, Lucien Lauren and John Nerud know about training horses?

Don’t even try that horses are different now. The only thing different is the attitude of trainers.

Now the biggest names, the ones with the potential to capture the attention of the mainstream audience, are hardly ever seen, to the detriment of the game.

It’s reached the point of absurdity. Gulfstream has a rich four-race series for 3-year-olds—the Mucho Macho Man, the Holy Bull, the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby. They are purposefully scheduled with a four-week gap between each. But not one Mucho Macho Man starter came back in the Holy Bull and it doesn’t look like a single Holy Bull participant will run next Saturday in the Fountain of Youth. How much time do they want between races?

The reality is horses don’t sit in the barn during the long hiatuses. They train every day. In Baffert’s case they train really hard.

any race fan knows more horses’ careers, if not their lives, are ended in training than in races. Just this week, racing lost a budding superstar filly, Taraz, and Baffert’s multiple stakes winner Bast. Both mishaps happened in training.

Like Elizabeth Warren, I have a plan. Again, like Warren, it’s radical.

Bag the 100-point and 50-point races. Make every graded stakes starting Jan. 1 worth the same number of points. This would encourage 3YO’s to run at least four times.

Just to demonstrate I’m not totally radical, if there must be some compromise, make Grade 3 stakes 3-2-1, Grade 2’s 5-4-3 and Grade 1’s 10-7-5 or something along those lines.

Either way, it would be playing with fire to sit out the early part of sophomore season, figuring a horse could get enough points late to make the Derby.

Good horses would actually have to run and those who do would be rewarded. What a concept.

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16 Responses

  1. TJ, while many points are well made, must disagree with several others, at least theoretically.

    When Win Elliott and Charlsie Cantey did their show–one that got me very interested on the sport–raceday Lasix was not legal in New York. Don’t remember about other jurisdictions at that time but that was the case in New York.

    Whether it’s Lasix or not, horses are different these days. Trainers react to that reality. In that context, trainers who use Sheets as their guide are as much at fault as the current schedule.

    Training can be as stressful as racing, no doubt, but you must run as fast as you can in the afternoon, not in the morning. (That aside, we don’t know what, if any, medications make super trainers so super).

    As an aside, but not, horses are graded as much by race or region as they are by prestige. I kind of like the idea that the Triple Crown prep path acts more like what the intended purpose of the Breeders’ Cup was, a movable feast.

    Fans in different states get to see potential Derby horses at their home tracks. While racing is played like a video game thanks to computer/phone wagering, people don’t fall in love with the sport, hooked on it, until they experience it live.

    European, Japanese and Middle Eastern horses are afforded slots for two reasons; growing international racing interest and handle– mostly the latter.

    Many horsemen, and handicappers, believe that the third start off the layoff is when horses peak. With two preps, trainers have the option to bear down in one spot or another to gain points and 50-point preps serve that purpose. Two hard races into the Derby would see today’s horses empty out for the most part, not improve.

    (I know you’re a Gouverneur Morris fan and you can hardly find better connections than Todd Pletcher and Team Valor. Their philosophy is if the colt is not good enough to finish 1-2 in the final prep, or win a 50-pointer, they may not be ready for the grueling mile and a quarter without any water. They’re probably right about that.

    Gulfstream scheduled their races to accommodate the realities of modern horsemanship. If you win the MMM , you put your eggs in the Fountain of Youth basket and if you win, you’re in, you can cruise into a 100-pointer, finish a good third, and you’re on your way.

    Either way, the first two Florida legs are intended to get you to the third or fourth and have a fresh horse for Louisville. I agree that fresh is best. The conservative Barclay Tagg has adapted. Funny Cide needed three runs but after winning the best prep of the year, finish 1-2 in the Florida Derby and they’re in–and have a fresh horse.

    Over-racing, with today’s purses and myriad opportunities, doesn’t make sense anymore. I’ve told you what Richard Migliore, a winner of over 4,400 races, told me a long time ago. I mentioned it to you but you choose to ignore his experience. “Horses have only so many miles in those legs,” he said.

    Off the top, I agree with several of your ideas. The defending juvenile champion should earn a berth, most likely with a Juvenile victory, but horsemen should feel compelled to run in the Juvenile if they believe it’s too much too soon and they want a battle tested but fresh 3YO. New York, Kentucky and California have one of those battleground races, with or without the Juvenile.

    The Sunland Derby should not a a win and in when other established races are ignored; perhaps a 30-pointer so that the winner would need one more good placing in a more traditional event. Dubai should be a 50. Why have a horse that finishes second earn 40 points and get in at the expense of the U.S. horses?

    Much to chew on, but the length of this comment was not my intention. However, as Mark Harmon once uttered way back as a young doctor on Chicago Hope, “shit happens.”

  2. Two things you and I are never going to agree upon: politics and pampering horses. Both are steeped in opinion more than fact.

    I have the utmost respect for The Mig as a rider and now an analyst. I have never met him but I hear he is a great person, too. His knowledge of racing obviously dwarfs mine. But this doesn’t mean he is right in every instance.

    I suspect “There are only so many miles in those legs” is a platitude he heard around the race track and adopted as something that sounds profound. But the fact that some horses race 40 times while others are done after 4 races.

    Each horse is an individual. The problem is ultra conservative training doesn’t give horses an opportunity to show whether they thrive on racing or need a lot of spacing between races.

    Horses are going to lose a lot more than they win. This is indisputable when there are 7, 8 or more horses in most races. In a monkey see, monkey do business, I’m sure many trainers are reluctant to “over-race” their horses out of fear they will be dismissed as not being a good horseman.

    This is along the lines of trainers putting their horses on Lasix, whether they need it or not, because everyone else does.

    Speaking of Lasix, when it was first being advocated, weren’t we told that it would lengthen the careers of horses and allow them to race more often? Alas, there are far more lies around the track (and in life) than there are truths.

    1. Indeed, that’s what we were told about Lasix back when New York was the last venue to capitulate. I fell for the BS, admittedly.

      But, sorry, I think I’ll trust the word of someone who rode 4,400 winners and give him some credit for intelligence, think that was a bit insulting. Not everyone lies to make a point.

      Let me ask you something. If today’s stock is hearty enough to withstand more racing, and purses in some cases being obscenely high, do you think owners and trainers would sit on their horses because it’s trendy to do so? C’mon Tom.

      P.S. On average, horses lose about 30 pounds on Lasix. Get rid of extra weight and you run faster, thus Lasix enhances performance. That’s why 99% race with it. No one wants to give away an edge, especially when it’s legal to do so.

      And if your political stance hasn’t softened in light of events just this week, then news must move very slowly in Jensen Beach.

  3. I agree with much of what you wrote, TJ.

    Qualifying points earned based on graded stakes finishes rather than earnings was a concept both JP and I championed prior to CDI’s last change to its Derby eligibility rules.

    I also agree with your recommendations for specific race point adjustments although I would like to see the Wood and Gotham both pushed back a week before that happens.
    The UAE Derby is definitely a travesty of fairness; the Sunland Derby is still living on Coattails of the 2nd place Derby finisher behind American Pharoah (Firing Line?).

    I don’t know how different horses are from one era to another, but I believe the use of Lasix has to be considered a factor. I agree with those who think it improves performance, and I think its use creates a realignment of class.

    For example, suppose Horse A can beat Horse B when neither horse runs on Lasix,
    but Horse B can beat Horse A whenever B uses Lasix. Further, A runs faster on Lasix than without it, but not as fast as B with it.

    Is it possible that the majority is constituted by Horse A who even if they aren’t becoming more likely candidates to incur injury when running faster while not winning, still require greater recovery time to race due to Lasix (and thereby forced to race less frequently) than they might otherwise?

  4. TTT

    Just go back to dollars won. The point system is ridiculous. If a track can put up a large purse, good horses will attend. The point system is just another monopolistic scheme.

  5. If breeding and profits making babies is the goal it kind makes sense to “protect” their investment (runner) with less starts. Slew would’ve commanded top dollar as a sire even if he hadn’t campaigned at four. He did romp in the Wood which was nice for us New Yorkers to see, ‘tho. Paid $2.20 as Mike Warren’s Five Star Special. Hey, it’s a winner.

  6. The point system might be ridiculous but money won is worse. It creates situations like the Delta Downs Jackpot essentially being a win and you’re in.

  7. TTT

    If a track puts up a large sum of money to attract the best horses, it makes a competitive environment. The point system is basically a form of communism. When you restrain trade with unfair practices all you do is pervert justice and fairness. It is great for the rich leftists who want ti control everything, but not for everyone else who are looking for that dream of winning the Kentucky Derby.

    1. Interesting take. Mike Bloomberg mentioned Communism at recent debate and Bernie called it a “cheap shot.” However, the 1985 Spend A Buck Derby (no auxiliary gate) had multiple runners that went off at odds of 99-1. Sure, their owner’s had a dream but they did not belong in the race. Chief’s Crown was the chalk at 6-5 but Cordero ruined that dream. I kind of like having the best horses with wins under their belts duking it out on a beautiful day (“The reason they invented May”-Jack Whitaker). And here comes Giacomo, he’s gonna win it all! “Mine That Bird” with Calvin Bo Rail, up in time.” Shipped into Churchill in a horse van from Albuquerque, cool story. They even made a movie about it.

  8. Remeber Spend A Buck with Angel wiring “The First Saturday in May” with auxiliary gate. Shades of MAX going coast to coast except SAB’s number stayed up. You do not take down Angel Cordero (Preakness). Used to win jockey title at Spa every summer. What does this have to do with what you wrote, ha, ha.

  9. The points system can use some tweaking, admittedly, but go back to money won?

    Having a formful Derby, as results have shown since the points system was initiated, is a bad thing?

    Make it about purses and five super trainers will fill up the gate in Louisville because some of their 2YOs won a half-million dollar sprints.

    Going back to money won would represent yet another victory for ideology over common sense.

    Weren’t you the one who wrote year after year that horses undefeated at 3 was the best path to Derby victory? And didn’t those races include at least one 50 or 100 pointer?

  10. Wow! How did you get from Point A to Point ZZ without stopping anywhere in the middle?

    I was nothing but complimentary toward Migliore. I said his knowledge dwarfs mine. Thankfully, my comments are still here, so people can see for themselves.

    The comment about lies was in relationship to Lasix, which had nothing to do with the segment on The Mig.

    I have steadfastly refused to get into politics, other than acknowledging our differences of opinion, because this is a racing site. So I’ll pass on your comment on events of this week other than to say it’s been a great week. I’ll leave it open to interpretation.

    Who do you like in the double?

  11. You guys could do an end of show segment like there used to be on 60 Mins called Point, Counterpoint. Spirited debate which was replaced by Andy “Did you ever wonder why your desk has so many paperclips in it?” Rooney. Bernie jogs in NV, a walk-over. Uncle Joe nips Mayor Mike at the wire. Liz Warren completes the super.

  12. TTT

    Someone mentioned common sense. Let me explain things in detail so that even a leftist could understand. They created the point system, not to get the best horses in the gate, but to control which tracks are allowed to hold Derby prep races, thereby shutting out certain tracks. Those “certain” other tracks now can’t offer big money for a race, because nobody will come but inferior horses. This is a form of anti-trust violation. For those who can’t understand this, keep listening to Richard Migliore tell you how a horse “looks good on the racetrack,” it is a great way to go broke.

  13. T,
    Agree with your anti-trust violation observation, but going back to earnings-based eligibility would simple enable a different set of unfair factors.

    Even if one isn’t a fan of the current system, one can’t deny the re-emergence of TC winners under that system, although I think it has more to do with the elimination of pure sprinters from participation.

    BTW, advocating fairness in racing is the “right” thing to do! LOL

  14. On another subject, the Miracle on Ice USA hockey team made an appearance at a Trump rally in Las Vegas the other night. They were there to drop the puck for a LV vs FL NHL game and to recognize the 40th anniversary of their improbable win in Lake Placid. They were all on stage with The Donald wearing MAGA hats. One fellow tweeted this in response: “Good job guys. You turned a nonpartisan feel-good memory into a dumpster fire.” I remember a long time ago the ice cream franchise Carvel getting in trouble for anti-trust violations. They were requiring their franchisees to buy cups, straws, spoons, napkins, etc. from the parent company and not from an outside vendor. Not sure how it played out, ‘tho. The spoons and cups, and napkins, had the Carvel logo on them so it makes sense but I guess straws are straws. As for the re-emergence of TC winners that may have more to do with Bob Baffert trainees (Pharoah & Justify). These two behemoths would have won under any system.

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