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.