HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — When the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park and the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds are run on Saturday, people who follow thoroughbred racing will watch intently, even if they don’t have a financial stake in the outcome. The prep races that lead to the Kentucky Derby annually engage the attention of fans trying to spot the future winner of America’s most famous race.
But there is a new twist on the road to the Derby this year. Churchill Downs has changed the system to determine who gets into the Derby field and who doesn’t. The new rules will put added pressure on owners and trainers and ought to make the pre-Derby campaign even more competitive.
Churchill limits the Derby to 20 starters and for decades has given preference to horses on the basis of their earnings in graded stakes. The system wasn’t completely rational; horses got credit for earnings in 2-year-old races, sprints and grass races that had little or no relevance to the Derby. Moreover, purse money has ceased to reflect the importance of a prep race. The Delta Jackpot for 2-year-olds, run at little Delta Downs in Louisiana, offers a $1 million purse bolstered by slot-machine revenue, and thus counted for more than the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, which has produced 16 winners of the Run for the Roses.
It is important to have fair rules governing eligibility because the Derby in recent years has regularly attracted more than 20 prospective runners. So Churchill Downs eliminated the money standard and replaced it with a system awarding points to the top four finishers in designated stakes races. The 20 horses with the highest point totals get into the starting gate. Every stakes run prior to Feb. 23 bestowed 10 points to the winner. The events that Churchill has anointed the “Championship Series” begin Saturday with the Fountain of Youth and the Risen Star. These and six others are worth 50 points to the winner, followed by seven (including the biggies, such as the Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial and Florida Derby) that are worth 100.
The new rules have generated plenty of controversy. The Risen Star Stakes and the Louisiana Derby — traditionally regarded as second-tier prep races — were accorded 50- and 100-point status, respectively. (Churchill Downs, Inc. owns the Fair Grounds, where they are run.) The Illinois Derby at Hawthorne, which has grown in importance and produced the 2002 Kentucky Derby winner, was excluded from the list entirely. (Hawthorne was involved in a dispute over racing dates with the other Chicago track, Arlington Park, owned by Churchill Downs, Inc.) Many critics lambasted the fact that the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile earns only 10 points, creating the possibility that the champion of a thoroughbred generation wouldn’t qualify to run in the Derby.
On balance, though, I believe the new system will make the prep-race season better than ever. Trainers habitually try to get to the Derby by taking the path of least resistance and ducking the toughest competition. Important showdowns in the prep races have been increasingly rare. Even though most top 3-year-olds are stabled in Florida, the 2012 Fountain of Youth drew only seven starters and the Florida Derby a field of eight.