LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- Churchill Downs today released plans for a dramatically different qualifying process for the Kentucky Derby, taking a page from NASCAR and the PGA to create a points system for reaching the Run for the Roses.
Calling it the "Road to the Kentucky Derby," race officials say they're hoping it will be more understandable for fans accustomed to following leagues and standings.
The new system should shake up what had become set strategies for reaching the race, and does streamline the route to the Derby by limiting the number of "points" races to 36. Previously, earnings from 185 graded-stakes determined the field.
The new points system is a historic departure from the way fields have been determined. But it's not necessarily easier to understand. In fact, on its face, it may be more difficult for the casual fan to understand than the system already in place.
The old way of qualifying for the Derby took Churchill Downs only three bullet points to explain in the track's official presentation at KentuckyDerby.com.
-- The field is comprised of the top 20 Thoroughbreds with the highest earnings in graded stakes races.
-- More than 185 graded stakes races worldwide determine Kentucky Derby entries over a 10-month period.
-- Graded stakes races are governed by the American Graded Stakes Committee, an arm of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA), which sets graded stakes criteria and awards grade status to individual races.
The new system takes nine bullet points -- and then some -- to lay out. It sets of two tiers of races: The Kentucky Derby Prep Season and the Kentucky Derby Championship Series. Here's how race officials lay it out:
Kentucky Derby Prep Season
-- Nineteen races over 2-year-old & early 3-year-old seasons -- Distances of a mile or more -- Multiple surfaces: dirt, turf or synthetic
Kentucky Derby Championship Series
-- Series of seventeen races for 3-year-olds including two Wild Card races -- Distances of a mile or more -- Dirt or synthetic surfaces only
-- And finally, any Filly running in a race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby can use those points for the Road to the Kentucky Oaks.
In the prep season races, 10 points are assigned to the winner, with 4, 2 and 1 assigned to the following finishers.
The Championship Season itself is broken into two legs. The first leg is worth 50 points to the winner, followed by 20 for second place, 10 for third and 5 for fourth. In the second leg, made up of the most valuable races, a win is worth 100 points, followed by 40, 20 and 10 to the next finishers.
The Championship Season Second Leg races are the UAE Derby in Dubai, the Louisiana Derby, Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes.
Finally, there are two "Wild Card" races for last-minute points maneuvering. The Lexington Stakes at Keeneland (2 weeks out) and the Cliff's Edge Derby Trial (one week out) earn 20-8-4-2 points for the top four finishers and could be enough to push some at the end of the field into it.
Two thoughts: First, I like the idea of something besides pure earnings determining the field. Derby officials have attempted to give some structure to the pre-Derby season and to put the emphasis back on competition, and that's to be applauded. Frankly, owners and trainers had gotten into a pretty good rut in working the graded earnings system, and something new was needed.
But second, the explanation that this new system simplifies the qualifying process is amusing. This process is more complicated, in some ways by necessity, than the old one, by a longshot.
The average American sports fan is about as likely to understand it as he or she is to understand cricket. Derby officials are banking that sports fans in this country are used to following standings, and that the points list itself might make for an easier process to follow than the list of graded stakes earnings that pops up late in the process as it stands now.
Over the next several days, race analysts will be going back through Derby fields, weighing how this process would've changed the makeup in past years -- though that's really not possible, given that this new setup will change the strategies of what races to run.
Also yet to be determined: The effect of this on the other Triple Crown races. At first glance, it appears that horses may have to run one prep than they've been running -- especially as 3-year-olds -- to assure a spot in the Derby field. Will this make for fewer Derby runners trying the Preakness?
This system also doesn't give a free pass to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner, and I suppose it will allow some horses to load up on points from the lower-tier races if they can do well.
In general, though, if you win one of the big preps, you're likely in, and that's as it should be.
Give Derby organizers points for trying to come up with a competition-based qualifying formula. This gives them more say in what races are important and which are not, and winds up making the Derby a much more influential event in the entire three-year-old racing campaign than it already was.
Expect howling from tracks whose stakes races didn't make the list (Illinois Derby, for instance). Expect some head-scratching from casual fans, who probably are no more likely to pay attention to the preps than they were before.
And for the rest of us? Well, at least it throws some variety into the process.
Now, if the Derby truly wants to go NASCAR, it'll give post position choice priority to those who finish highest in the points race.
But one step at a time.
NOTE: Finally, in an interesting twist, The Courier-Journal in the final paragraph of its article on this story in this morning's edition disclosed the following: "The USA Today Sports Media Group, whose parent corporation Gannett also owns The Courier-Journal, is a marketing partner with Churchill Downs in Road to the Kentucky Derby and Road to the Kentucky Oaks."
As part of that marketing partnership, USA Today has agreed to update the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" standings twice a week, on Monday and Friday, in its print edition.
USA Today Sports Media Group is entering business arrangements with many sports entities, including the PGA and Major League Baseball, as well as with many blogs and other online media sources, which often link its affiliated papers with entities they cover and, in some cases, competing online publications in their cities.
Not a major development, but one worth noting nonetheless.
Read more about the new Kentucky Derby qualifying process at http://www.kentuckyderby.com
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