Kentucky Derby Points System Improved Qualifying And Debate

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Ed DeRosa

February 16th, 2015

I was wrong about the Kentucky Derby points system.

When Churchill Downs Race Track rolled out its plan to determine Kentucky Derby entry by points awarded instead of graded stakes purses earned I thought it was an unnecessary step—more from an “if it’s not broken then don’t fix it” approach than anything else.

And while I still believe the previous system was not broken, I cannot deny that the points system is an improvement.

The two biggest changes are a shift in what races count (then: any graded stakes, including those restricted to fillies; now: 35 races, none restricted by sex) and which races are de facto win and you’re in events (then: any race with a purse of more than $500,000 including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf; now: the 15 races in the Kentucky Derby Championship Series).

Now in its third year, some patterns are beginning to emerge regarding how the points system has changed the Road to the Kentucky Derby. Anecdotally, many have mentioned that trainers are preparing their horses differently and putting a bigger focus on the Kentucky Derby Championship Series versus the Kentucky Derby Prep Season.

As a fan, this approach has certainly made the ten weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby more interesting (it will be ten weeks to this week’s Derby on February 21 when the Championship Series kicks off with the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds and the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park).

As a handicapper/analyst/blogger, however, it has been a challenge to have conviction behind my poll each week. We’re closer to the Kentucky Derby than we are American Pharoah’s last start, yet the champion two-year-old male sits atop my poll, which attempts to strike a balance between raw talent and fair odds to actually be in the race.

Texas Red had been my #1 until reports surfaced of missed training, skipping a prep, and even getting some R&R on the farm. This is not the time to not be at the track, so I dropped him to 11th. His Breeders’ Cup Juvenile still remains the most impressive race of his generation, but there’s no chance of replicating that performance with one seven-furlong race in six months off a 13-week layoff.

So far 306 points are accounted for, and 1,904 points remaining to give out, yet it’s safe to say two horses have already punched their tickets to the Kentucky Derby starting if they want to go: El Kabeir and International Star both of whom have more than 20 points by already winning a pair of prep races.

The former will race again in the Gotham Stakes while the latter runs this weekend in the Risen Star, and even though neither of their last-out performances gave much confidence vis a vis the Derby (El Kabeir was thoroughly beaten in the Withers and International Star hasn’t run remotely fast enough), I will keep both in my top 20 until they’re off the trail for the simple fact that both could run if they wanted.

Dortmund also has two Prep wins to his credit, but has looked more the classic part than either El Kabeir or International Star. However, he and his familiar foil Firing Line—second in both the Los Alamitos Futurity and Lewis Stakes—might not run again for six weeks. Dortmund is the type of horse I have a hard time moving much higher than fifth because he’s already popular, and I don’t think any of his runs to date have been as impressive as what we’ve seen from American Pharoah, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile also rans Upstart and Carpe Diem, or the Withers winner Far From Over (this is my top four, incidentally).

This is the time of year I don’t mind getting cute with a pick or two. We have all of April to suss out a ranking that balances likelihood of winning and value, so why not take some shots and have some fun now? Recent top ten horses at this stage in previous years include maiden winner Wharton and 96Rock Stakes winner Mac the Man. Neither came close to panning out, but so what. If owners can spend millions on yearlings and two-year-olds who never win, then I’m not going to feel guilty about taking a flyer on a longshot in February.

I have no such flyers this year. Yeah, the winner of the 96Rock Stakes—The Great War—is #7 on my poll, but he also happened to finish fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Of the unproven horses, I’m most intrigued by Khozan, but as a half brother to Royal Delta in the barn of Todd Pletcher, he’s hardly a secret. I might have snuck him in my top 10 if his next race were to be a stakes rather than an allowance, but I’ll need to see one more before I put a “needs all his points in one start to make the Derby” horse in my top 10. I do have him in my top 20 poll on the Courier-Journal’s Original National Kentucky Derby Poll, however.

And that is one of the nice things to look forward to about the Championship Series. Potential will give way to performance. Like Hazel Park says in its “bet the Kentucky Derby” promos, “It means more with something on the line.”