CRAWFORD | Four years in, points system may have made Derby a mo - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Four years in, points system may have made Derby a more 'honest' race

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AP photo. AP photo.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- In 2013, when Churchill Downs introduced its new points system for Kentucky Derby qualification, not a few thoroughbred racing traditionalists were skeptical.

The system assigned points to prep races, with the points increasing as the stakes, and purses, grew throughout the Derby prep season. It created a leaderboard, which race officials hoped would generate interest in the process.

And, in fact, that was the main goal of the points system, according to Churchill Downs senior director of communications, Darren Rogers, the chief architect of the plan. Along the way, he hoped the track would create some interest in the week-to-week leaderboard.

You can argue whether either of those goals has been accomplished. But there may have been an unintended, yet welcome, consequence.

Prior to the points system going into place, with the field largely determined by graded stakes earnings, post-time favorites won the Derby four times in 32 years.

In the three years since it has been instituted, favorites have won every year: Orb at 5-1 in 2013, California Chrome at 5-2 in 2014 and American Pharoah at 3-1 in 2015.

Some horsemen and handicappers have said that the points system has made the Derby, with its 20-horse field, 1 1/4-mile length and furlongs of unpredictability, a more honest horse race.

Because the current points system puts a premium on the later preps, and only awards points for races of one mile or longer, it's now more difficult to sneak a sprinter into the race to pile up blazing early fractions and burn out contenders who want to stay within striking distance of the lead.

"I love the points system," said Derby oddsmaker Mike Battaglia, who has set the race's Morning Line for the past 31 years. "I think it keeps horses that shouldn't be in there, who are primarily sprinters, out of the race, just because they won a sprint race at two. I really think, there's no perfect system. You're going to find a flaw in any system you have. But to me, this is the best system they've had thus far."

Bob Baffert is the trainer who was robbed by such a sprinter in the 2012 Kentucky Derby, the last run before the points system. His Bodemeister was a 4-1 favorite, and wanted to be on the lead, but he was pressed every step of the way through some of the fastest fractions in the race's history by Trinniberg, who got into the race after a late defection.

He had never even competed in a race longer than seven furlongs. New York Post writer Ray Kerrison wrote before the race, "Nobody believes Trinniberg has even a ghost of a chance to win the Derby, but everyone believes he's going to have a profound effect on shaping the outcome."

Bodemeister, as expected, wanted to be on the lead and was on the lead, but with Trinniberg pressing him, he set far faster fractions than he would have, running the fourth-fastest half-mile in Derby history (45.39 seconds) and the fifth-fastest mile (1:35.19).

As expected, just before the mile marker, Trinniberg was finished. But soon after, so was Bodemeister, who tired in the final furlong and lost to I'll Have Another by a length and a half.

"These rules changes have been bad timing for me," Baffert said, shaking his head. "The year they changed the post position choice to go back to a blind draw, I drew No. 1 and would've had first choice with Lookin' at Lucky. And the last year before the points, that sprinter Trinniberg, that sprinter, just kept Bodemeister rolling the whole way. But I think with this points system they're trying to get the best horses to the race, and I think that's working."

The guy whose horse caught and passed Bodemeister before the wire, Doug O'Neill, comes into this year's Derby with the favorite, Nyquist, the 2-year-old champion who is unbeaten in seven races.

Nyquist generally likes to sit just off the pace before making a late move. He'll start from the No. 13 post. Outside of him, starting from No. 20, is Danzing Candy, the one horse of the 20 who would prefer to get out in front of the entire field early.

"It definitely seems like, because of the points system, you're not getting the horse who has won 7-8 races, maybe at the shorter distances," O'Neill said. "It looks like it could work to our advantage, and if that's the case, I like it."

Not everyone agrees with the theory. Trainer Dale Romans points to Palace Malice, who blazed three-quarters of a mile in 1:09.8 seconds in 2013, before tiring and being overtaken just before the mile marker. But Palace Malice also led the field by 3 1/2 lengths for much of that time, so he wasn't too hotly engaged by the rest of the field.

As much as Rogers would like to take credit for making the Derby a more honest race, he's not yet sold on the data.

"It's a small pool, in terms of the favorites, and it doesn't mean we're not going to have somebody pop up and surprise everybody this year," Rogers said. "But I do think the pace has a chance to be more on the honest side, for the distance. That wasn't one of the intentions when we did the points system. But it may have had that affect. I'd also say that the draw determines so much, and probably determines the pace more than any points system. We had some criticism early. But I think the horsemen have taken to this system. And it has worked well."

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