Whenever there is change, it is almost always accompanied by its nagging companion, scrutiny. And on the road to the Kentucky Derby, it's time for the questioning to pick up steam.
In his first outing since being anointed 2-year-old champion male, unbeaten Shanghai Bobby will have his every stride dissected when he makes his season debut against nine rivals in Saturday's Grade III Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
Just as Shanghai Bobby and his fellow Triple Crown contenders will be analyzed to the fullest between now and the first Saturday in May, so too will be the new points system that will determine who breaks from the Kentucky Derby starting gate.
After 26 years of using graded stakes earnings to determine the 20-horse Derby field, Churchill Downs announced last June it was implementing a points-based system for 2013 that would be accumulated over a 36-race series.
Unlike the prior system in which winners of purse-rich races such as the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile and $1 million Delta Jackpot would be guaranteed a spot in the Derby field regardless what they did in their 3-year-old preps, the new approach puts decidedly less emphasis on 2-year-old form, turf and sprint races and awards the most points to those prep races held in the six weeks prior to the Derby.
The points system also requires fillies to race against males prior to the Derby in order to have a chance at getting in, though it must be noted that all three female Kentucky Derby winners (Regret, Genuine Risk, Winning Colors) had previously taken on the boys.
Not surprisingly, critics have been quick to descend on the new system — particularly those with highly accomplished 2-year-olds who no longer have the security of knowing their babies are bound for the opening leg of the Triple Crown as long as they stay sound/healthy enough to get there.
"In some ways it's not dramatically different than the old one, other than the 2-year-old form isn't being considered at all," said five-time Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher, who trains both Shanghai Bobby and Violence, winner of the Grade I, $750,000 CashCall Futurity. "It's easy for me to say that now because we've got the juvenile champion, but I said that before.
"I thought it was the obvious flaw in the program. The Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner shouldn't have to worry about gaining points. But the rule is the rule, and everyone knows about it before the game starts."
One of the biggest catalysts to the creation of the new system was the fact that it takes the fate of the Derby field out of the hands of the American Graded Stakes Committee.
In 2011, the committee proposed a plan that would require a ban on the race-day use of the anti-bleeder medication Lasix in juvenile stakes beginning in 2012 in order for those races to be eligible for the grade it assigns.
While the committee did not implement such action after strong opposition from horsemen, the points system eliminates the chance such a rule could affect Derby contenders.
"We look at (the system) each year ... but we took a real serious examination of it in August 2011," said Darren Rogers, senior director of communications for Churchill Downs. "And it was some discussions along those lines with the possibility of some races or jurisdictions being penalized with their graded races being stripped. That's what prompted the discussion for us to ask ourselves is there a better way to do this and if there is, is there also a way to simultaneously bring new fans to the sport and captivate an audience (with a system).
"We wanted to take the approach of how can we control the destiny of our race."
One of the memorable quips in the aftermath of Shanghai Bobby's win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile was when Starlight Racing principle Jack Wolf said he wasn't yet thinking Derby with his colt because "they only gave us 10 points."
Heading into the Holy Bull Stakes, which is also worth a maximum of 10 points, Shanghai Bobby has earned 20 points thus far courtesy of his wins in the Grade I Champagne Stakes and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last season. He's second in the points standings behind Goldencents — the colt co-owned by Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino — who has 24 points.
No one knows how many points it will take to be safely into this year's Derby field. But applying the new system to the last five Derby fields shows that Shanghai Bobby might be in better shape than some thought.
Optimizer, the last horse into the 2012 Derby field based on earnings, would have had 23 points under the new system. In 2011, 13th-place finisher Derby Kitten would have had the lowest points in that field with 20 while 2009 Kentucky Derby hero Mine That Bird would have still qualified as the 20th horse in the field that season with only 15 points.
"The way I looked at it was 40-50 points would be enough to get you in," said Eclipse Award-winning trainer Dale Romans, who will saddle Dewey Square in the Holy Bull on Saturday. "That being said ... I think it's going to change things because it basically comes down to the last two races. It doesn't allow me to take the path that I have in the past to get some of them ready. Two of them (Dullahan, Paddy O'Prado) I took through the turf route and if I wanted to do it now, I couldn't."
Considering only one Kentucky Derby victor since 2000 (Street Sense, 2007) was a Grade I winner at age 2, later-blooming horses with recent form have proven most successful in reaching the winner's circle.
While officials with Churchill concede tweaks to the system probably will be on tap for 2014, they still feel this path is the best one to ensure the 20 best sophomores capable of covering 11/4 miles are in the gate come May 4.
"It's Churchill's job for it to be a good race, and I think it will work out fine," said trainer Kenny McPeek, who will send out Frac Daddy in the Holy Bull. "What Churchill has done is made the last two preps vital ... but if a horse can't get a major score in the last couple of preps then you probably don't belong."
Earnings vs. points
How the 2012 Kentucky Derby field ranked on graded earnings and how many points they would have had under the new system:
Horse Earnings Points
Hansen $1,550,000 104
Daddy Long Legs $1,284.030 100
Union Rags $1,170,000 84
Dullahan $855,000 111
Creative Cause $836,000 102
Gemologist $703,855 110
Sabercat $701,429 30
Take Charge Indy$698,400 101
Bodemeister $660,000 120
I'll Have Another$601,000 110
Daddy Nose Best$545,558 60
Liaison $393,000 15
Alpha $380,000 54
Prospective $367,327 64
Trinniberg $324,500 0
Done Talking $311,000 1
Went the Day Well$282,000 50
Rousing Sermon $270,000 26
El Padrino $250,000 62
Optimizer $184,708 23