It All Adds Up for Kentucky Derby Points System

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2017 Derby winner Always Dreaming | Coady

By Steve Sherack

LOUISVILLE, Ky – In the summer of 2012, officials at Churchill Downs announced the launch of the ‘Road to the Kentucky Derby’ points series with hopes of establishing a “fan-friendly, cohesive and simplified system” in order to “create compelling drama to appeal to a wider customer base.”

With five Kentucky Derbies now in the books since ditching the previous graded earnings qualifying system, so far so good, reports Senior Director of Communications at Churchill Downs Darren Rogers.

“We’re thrilled with the results and the way things are going,” Rogers said. “We established a clear and condensed road map that we believe is fan friendly. It’s a compact schedule that features competitive races and the captivating drama is second to none. We still had drama with the earnings system, but I don’t think it was as fan friendly or clearly defined.”

Points are awarded to the top four finishers in a series of designated races across the country and around the world. The 20 3-year-olds with the most points earn a spot in the starting gate for the ‘Run for the Roses.’

Unbeaten GI Arkansas Derby hero and ‘TDN Rising Star’ Magnum Moon (Malibu Moon) finished atop this year’s leaderboard with 150 points. After a pair of defections, GIII Lecomte S. winner Instilled Regard (Arch) filled the final of 20 slots with 29 points.

“Increased fan interest and wagering–those were the goals and I think they have been well-received,” Rogers said. “A number of our partners and fellow stakeholders have seen record days when they’re hosting ‘Road to the Derby’ races and that’s great for the sport of racing. We’re certainly pleased, and on an annual basis, we continue to meet after the Triple Crown and figure out if there are ways to tweak it and make it better, including the recent additions of the Japanese and European Roads to the Derby.”

You won’t find a happier group on the First Saturday in May than chalk players these days. Kentucky Derby post-time favorites are now a perfect five-for-five since the tiered point system began in 2013, with Orb (Malibu Moon) returning $12.80, California Chrome (Lucky Pulpit) $7.00, American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile) $7.80, Nyquist (Uncle Mo) $6.60 and Always Dreaming (Bodemeister) $11.40. All five entered the Derby starting gate without a prior losing effort at three.

Pace Makes the Race…

Has it become more important to have early speed in the Kentucky Derby? Talks of the early pace slowing down have become a hot topic with the last four Derby winners utilizing their high-cruising early speed to turn in similar stalk-and-pounce trips.

One thing that the points system has done is reward recency. The final round of major prep races–the GII TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby Mar. 24, G2 UAE Derby Mar. 31, GI Xpressbet Florida Derby Mar. 31, GII Wood Memorial Apr. 7, GII Toyota Blue Grass S. Apr. 7, GI Santa Anita Derby Apr. 7 and GI Arkansas Derby Apr. 14–all carry maximum points of 100-40-20-10 to the first four finishers. The GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, on the contrary, only offers 20-8-4-2.

As a result, speedy one-turn graded winners and past Derby pace factors like Keyed Entry (Honour and Glory) (2006) and Trinniberg (Teuflesberg) (2012), or even an early season graded winner going a two-turn mile such as the front-running Spanish Chestnut (Horse Chestnut {SAf}) (2005), who finished off the board in his final two preps, are now more likely to be excluded from the starting gate.

Trinniberg, winner of the GIII Swale S. and GIII Bay Shore S., both at seven furlongs, famously pressed eventual Derby runner-up Bodemeister (Empire Maker) through scorching opening splits of :22.32 and :45.39 and faded to 17th behind I’ll Have Another (Flower Alley).

Giacomo (Holy Bull) rallied from far back behind a hot opening pace of :22.28 and :45.38 established by eventual 16th-place finisher Spanish Chestnut to pull off a 50-1 upset.

Keyed Entry, winner of the GII Hutcheson S. going 7 1/2 furlongs and third-place finisher in the GI Wood Memorial, was last of 20 behind the mighty Barbaro (Dynaformer) after showing the way through fractions of :22.63 and :46.07.

The 2007 Derby, won in dramatic come-from-behind fashion by juvenile champ Street Sense (Street Cry {Ire}), is another renewal to take a closer look at.

The game runner-up Hard Spun (Danzig) had plenty of pursuers on his tail through fractions of :22.96 and :46.26, including Stormello (Stormy Atlantic) and Teuflesberg (Johannesburg).

Stormello, winner of the GI Hollywood Futurity, was a narrow second in his best attempt at three in the GII Fountain of Youth S. Southwest winner Teuflesberg would’ve also been on the bubble after finishing third in the GIII Rebel S. and fourth in the GI Blue Grass S. in his final two preps. Neither stuck around in the stretch, with Stormello finishing 19th and Teuflesberg 17th.

“It seems that you’ve taken a lot of the horses that were precocious at two and mostly speed and you’ve kind of eliminated them unless they’ve gotten just so mature and carried that on to their 3-year-old year,” retired Hall of Fame jockey turned NBC analyst Jerry Bailey said. “So, yeah, I think [the points system] has had an effect of minimizing, if not eliminating, for the most part, that crazy speed that does nothing but ensure a fast pace.”

Bailey, a two-time Derby winner courtesy of Sea Hero (Polish Navy) in 1993 and Grindstone (Unbridled) three years later, also crossed the line second aboard Tejano Run (Tejano) (1995) and Empire Maker (Unbridled) (2003) and was third with Blumin Affair (Dynaformer) (1994).

“As a jockey, I think it’s always important to have tactical speed in a 20-horse field,” Bailey said. “It’s the rare individual that has early tactical speed and the stamina and staying power to go a mile and a quarter. You’re supposed to be special to win that race.”

Of the points system, Bailey said, “I think it’s probably overall a good thing.”

The speedy Promises Fulfilled (Shackleford), an upset front-running winner of the GII Xpressbet Fountain of Youth S., is one of several runners that figure prominent early on paper in this year’s Derby. Last of nine after lighting up the tote board with a :21.95 opening quarter-mile in the Florida Derby, he compiled a total of 52 points on the ‘Road to the Derby,’ placing him 14th overall.

“Promises Fulfilled has the points–he won the Fountain of Youth–so he’s a legitimate entrant in this year’s Kentucky Derby,” Bailey said. “But he’s going to probably employ the same tactics, and if there’s a one-dimensional horse in there, he’s going to cook their goose.”

Rogers is quick to acknowledge that a fast pace is still very possible with the points system as evidenced by the 2013 and 2016 renewals of the Kentucky Derby.

The points system era began with a first-time blinkered and next out GI Belmont S. winner Palace Malice (Curlin) speeding off through blistering early fractions of :22.57 and :45.33, good for the fourth fastest half-mile in Derby history. ‘TDN Rising Star’ Danzing Candy (Twirling Candy), meanwhile, led by four lengths through a :45.72 half-mile in Nyquist’s win, ninth fastest of all time.

The three other Derby half-miles since the points series began were: :47.37 [set by Uncle Sigh (Indian Charlie) – 2014], :47.34 [Dortmund (Big Brown) – 2015] and :46.53 [State of Honor (To Honor and Serve) – 2017].

“From an analytical standpoint, I don’t know if five years is enough of a data point to really draw any significant conclusions,” Rogers said. “I believe a favorite winning each of the five years we’ve done this is more of a statistical anomaly. And the same thing with the pace. Twice in the last five years, we’ve had two of the nine fastest half-miles in Derby history. That’s why I don’t know if I can buy into that yet.”

Rogers concluded, “Anytime you have a 20-horse field, I still think you have to have an elite horse, a good trip and a lot of luck. And maybe that’s been the case each of the last five years.”

Stars of the Show…

No trainer has navigated the ‘Road to the Kentucky Derby’ better than seven-time Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher. Fresh off the heels of saddling his second Derby winner, all four members of this year’s ‘Todd Squad’ captured 100 pointers-Audible (Into Mischief) (Florida Derby), Magnum Moon (Arkansas Derby), ‘TDN Rising Star’ Noble Indy (Take Charge Indy) (Louisiana Derby) and Vino Rosso (Curlin) (Wood Memorial). Pletcher has saddled a total of 17 starters in the last five Derbies, led by as many as five in 2013 and as few as two in 2016.

“It appears to be a fair system,” Pletcher said. “It doesn’t look like anybody has been left out that you could make a super, strong case for. I’ve always said with any system of qualifying for a race, everyone’s aware well in advance of what the system is and has time to prepare for it.”

The 2017 Derby winner Always Dreaming didn’t have any points to show for prior to making his stakes debut with a five-length tour de force in the Florida Derby.

“There’s always that risk like we took last year with Always Dreaming where we took a shot at one race [to qualify] in the Florida Derby,” Pletcher said. “God forbid something goes wrong and you stumble at the start, you could potentially put yourself in a precarious position, but it worked out in his case. I think in most scenarios, it seems like it’s worked out for all the right horses.”

Pletcher continued, “Some horses that maybe were qualifying before on graded earnings from sprint races might have had an impact on the outcome of some Derbies because of the pace scenario, but again, it’s all laid out there. And, obviously, if you have a filly that you’re seriously considering, you need to adjust your plans at least one race before and test the colts before you go to the Kentucky Derby.”

WinStar Farm will be locked and loaded in the starting gate as an owner of three runners in partnership, headed by the unbeaten Santa Anita Derby winner and ‘TDN Rising Star’ Justify (Scat Daddy). The flashy chestnut, a very well-documented unraced at two, has been installed as the morning-line favorite at 3-1.

Kenny Troutt’s operation, which tasted Derby success in 2010 with Super Saver (Maria’s Mon) and finished third with Revolutionary (War Pass) in 2013 and ‘TDN Rising Star’ Battle of Midway (Smart Strike) last year, will also be represented by Audible and Noble Indy. WinStar Farm is also the breeder of MGISW Bolt d’Oro (Medaglia d’Oro) and Noble Indy.

“It’s been very formful over the five years that they’ve done it so far,” WinStar Farm President/CEO Elliott Walden said of the points series. “The Derby winner has been a horse that has been among the top in points and I think that shows that the system is working. It does have an impact on the style of the race and the pace. With the 2-year-old form basically getting kicked out, it lends itself to a slower first half-mile, which in turn can cause some traffic issues for horses because the 20-horse field is not as spread out.”

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