Kentucky Derby points and the last Derby shocker

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.



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!

Filed in Kentucky Derby,thoroughbred racing history

8 Responses to “Kentucky Derby points and the last Derby shocker”

  1. But, Viva Canonero!

    And I very much agree about the Illinois Derby being a prep instead of the UAE Derby. One has produced at least one Kentucky Derby winner and is a mere 5-6 hour drive from Churchill Downs, while the other has never produced a Derby winner and may as well be on the moon.

  2. Ron Micetic says:

    The Fair Grounds races, which Churchill Downs Inc. happens to own, has not produced anything close to a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender since Black Gold in 1924. The current point system is little more than a self serving vehicle to promote Churchill Downs Inc. venues, and to punish Hawthorne a competitor who had the audacity to fight the cabal for racing dates in Illinois.

    As you have eloquently written, the real loss is the possibility of a Canonero II coming from nowhere to win not only the Derby, but also the Preakness, and then to run courageously and creditably in the Belmont.

    1971 was the first Derby I’d missed since 1967. Richard Nixon drafted me in August of 1970….somehow deciding that I would be of value in an army uniform. Following the Derby from half way around the world was difficult, however, Twist The Axe was my pick. I was shocked when I heard something called Canonero 2nd had won. Later I learned that the horse was so poorly thought of and ridiculed that his connections had not even been invited to most of the Derby events. Plus, due to a horribly slow workout and his ragged appearance had he not been part of a six horse mutual field he might have gone off at odds north of 200-1.

    I knew from that moment on I would always be a Kentucky Derby and horse racing fan. Like many race horses, Canonero 2nd’s is a story that could be made into a movie.

  3. Larry McClelland says:

    I don’t think it would be too much to restrict owners and trainers to a single entry, I believe that would open the field to an extent.

  4. Wabstat says:

    FG has not produced a legit contender since ’24?

    How about dual classic winner Risen Star who would go on to obliterate the two horses who finished in front of him in the Derby.

  5. Horatio Luro says:


    I think you are misleading people.

    No Kentucky Derby winner has shipped from Hawthorne since Christ was in Detroit.

    Hawthorne might as well be Meydan, with tiny relative purses.

  6. Ron Micetic says:

    Horatio, Apparently Christ was in Detroit in 2002. Don’t know how I missed that, would have thought it would have been in the papers or on 60 Minutes.

    I really liked Risen Star, not sure how I forgot him. However, there is no question that over the last 10 or 15 years runners in the Illinois Derby have had a larger impact on Triple Crown races than the Fairgrounds.

  7. Waquoit says:

    Grindstone won the KY Derby after winning the LA Derby at FG. Try again, Ron.

  8. Waquoit says:

    LA Derby horses went 2-3 in the 2013 KY Derby