John Clay: Derby's controversial new points system produces field of hot horses

Herald-Leader Sports Columnist,JohnClayMay 2, 2013 

LOUISVILLE — Aside from picking the winner, the second-biggest debate concerning this year's Kentucky Derby involves the criteria for picking the horses for this year's Kentucky Derby.

You are either a proponent of Churchill Downs' new points system, or you are someone who has a beef with the system, or in some cases, you are both.

"I do think what they've done is right," said trainer Ken McPeek, "but they need to really look at it and see how they can make it better.'"

Previously, graded earnings were used as the tiebreaker in deciding the 20-horse field. This year, Churchill awarded points by order of finish in certain Derby prep races.

The system emphasized races closer to the Derby. For example, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner received only 10 points while the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes winner earned 100 points.

Injuries and defections caused this year's entry threshold to be a mere 10 points, but that may not always be the case.

"I thought they tweaked it when they shouldn't have, but I was wrong," admitted trainer D. Wayne Lukas. "It sorted them out better than I thought it would, but that may not happen every year."

The new system has eliminated the speedball who won a short-but-rich 2-year-old race thus qualifying for the longer 3-year-old race, only to destroy the Derby pace.

"That's probably the plus of the whole deal," Lukas said. "You knew Trinniberg wasn't going to win the Kentucky Derby (last year), and yet you can't deny that guy the chance to try it."

But is it unfair to so deeply de-emphasize the top 2-year-old races?

"The idea that the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile would get the same number of points as the horse that was fourth in the Florida Derby," said Cot Campbell, owner of Palace Malice, "that's got to be out of whack."

The system also discriminates against the fillies. Most fillies who entered previous Derbys did so after exceptional performances in Kentucky Oaks preps. Now, they need points from Derby preps.

"Winning Colors will be the last filly to win the Kentucky Derby, unless they change it," said Lukas, who trained the 1988 Derby winner.

This year's Oaks favorite, Dreaming of Julia, might have held her own in Saturday's big race, if she had the points.

"The one thing about it, we were aware of how the point system worked at the beginning of the year," said trainer Todd Pletcher, whose filly romped in the Gulfstream Oaks by almost 22 lengths. "But I'm not sure we would have done anything differently even if we had known that (performance) was coming."

The system also excluded the Illinois Derby, which produced 2002 Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem.

"I think that was really political, if you want to know the truth," Lukas said.

The Illinois Derby is run at Chicago's Hawthorne Racecourse, which competes with the Churchill Downs-owned Arlington Park.

"The UAE Derby has never produced a Derby winner, and that race gets points," McPeek said. "The Illinois Derby has produced a Derby winner and it doesn't."

Lukas also thinks the system is too complicated to create fan interest.

"A girl in the third grade in a Louisville grammar school here knew the difference between $200,000 and $250,000," the trainer said. "For her to understand the point system, she'd have to go to college."

It says here, however, that the system accomplished its primary purpose. The 20 horses running Saturday are all running at top form heading into the Derby.

"If a horse is on form, I think he should be rewarded for that," McPeek said.

"Seems to me (the system) would cause horses to run a little more frequently coming into the race," Campbell said. "I'm kind of in favor of that."

So what's the final verdict?

"I think they should go back to the old way," said Rick Porter, owner of Normandy Invasion. "It worked pretty good."

"Oh, they can keep the new one; it's OK," said Lukas. "But it needs to be tweaked."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: Johnclay.bloginky.com.

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