Apr 26th 2013 08:30 am |
Count me as a fan of the new Kentucky Derby qualifying point system that replaced graded stakes earnings as the measure to qualify for America’s greatest race. When a two-year-old winning a race in Vinton, Louisiana in November qualifies him (or her) for the Kentucky Derby the following May, its safe to say the system is broken. As we approach the 139th Derby most would agree that it has been a successful inaugural year for the new system. Among its many positives, the point system pushes the best colts into the most historically significant 3-year-old races at top tier tracks. This year’s prep races in March and April had strong, full fields and that’s how it should be.
Of course, the points system isn’t perfect either. The most frequent complaint I have heard is the so-called “exclusion” of fillies from the Kentucky Derby. Fillies have a qualifying system for the Oaks and can’t qualify for the Derby without running in open races. A filly like Dreaming of Julia, who ran the most impressive race among all of the 3-year-olds this year, doesn’t have the option to run in the Derby because she has only run in races restricted to females.
While I sympathize with this complaint, it’s important to note that the three fillies who won the Derby all ran in open races prior to the first Saturday in May: Winning Colors won the Santa Anita Derby in 1988, Genuine Risk ran third in the Wood Memorial in 1980, and Regret won three stakes against colts as a two-year-old before winning the Derby in 1915. Having said that, I would have no problem if the top point earner for the Oaks had the option to run in the Derby or if they devised another way to offer one or two spots to fillies.
The other issue that I have not yet heard but is equally significant is how the new points system will end the tradition of the Derby “shocker.” The days of winners like Canonero, Bold Venture, Mine That Bird, Donerail, and Count Turf, to name just a few of the most shocking winners in Derby history, are over with the new points system. With emphasis on top three finishes in races at the primary U.S. racing circuit** in the spring, never again will we have stories like the ones we had in 1971 and 2009.
The entry of unknown colts in the Derby is as old as the race itself. Raleigh Burroughs in a Kentucky Derby preview for the Turf & Sport Digest in 1952 wrote about this phenomena that speaks to the great tradition that is likely over with the advent of the new Derby points system:
As often as not, an evening before [Kentucky] Derby Day, some fellow will steam in from Tucson, or Oldsmar or Providence with a nice personality and a one-horse trailer loaded to capacity and announce that his colt is entered and the stable will be trying.
Such developments are very upsetting to the handicappers who have completed their calculations. They get to talking with the new arrival and decide he’s a man who really knows and loves horses. Then they begin to persuade themselves that they wouldn’t have made the trip half way across the country just to take a licking, even though the past performances argue that winning a six-furlong allowance race at Sunshine Park doesn’t make a colt Derby timber.
Under the charm of the Thoroughbred’s proprietor, an expert might even go to the barn, examine the critter, count the firing marks and revise his figures, a tragic error, as long-term statistics show that one-horse stables with firing marks that come in just before the Derby have brought few wins.
Firing marks aside, such entries provided “few wins” indeed but the stories that come with those wins are like no other. Canonero winning the 1971 Kentucky Derby stands as one of the most unlikely wins not just in racing but is plausibly unmatched in all of sports. While its hard to argue against the new Kentucky Derby points system, it does mark the end of an era. We’ll have a long odds winner of the Derby again but we will never again see, in the words of Tom Durkin, an “impossible result” like the one that came in 2009. Mine That Bird is the last of the real Derby shockers.
** I realize that the UAE Derby is the exception to this rule. I think it is ridiculous that a race half-way around the world that has never come close to producing a Kentucky Derby winner would be included in the new qualifying system. I’d rather see the Illinois Derby in the mix than the race in Dubai.
SOURCES NEWS AND NOTES
Raleigh Burroughs, “Kentucky Derby Preview,” Turf and Sport Digest, May 1952
This week, Eric Mitchell write a story in the the Bloodhorse about an idea to include a wild card spot for Fillies in the Derby. Read it here…
In case you missed, be sure to check out an interesting article from Eliza McGraw over at Raceday360: “Reading Down the Stretch”
Thanks for reading and good luck!