Churchill Downs paves new 'Road to the Kentucky Derby'

Published: Jun. 14, 2012 at 5:13 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 18, 2012 at 5:33 PM EDT
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Churchill Downs officials talking about the new system.
Churchill Downs officials talking about the new system.
Trainer Larry Jones discussing the new system.
Trainer Larry Jones discussing the new system.

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) – Churchill Downs is making a major change to the way the field of horses is determined for the Kentucky Derby race.

The historic race track announced Thursday that it will abandon the graded stakes earnings criteria it has used since 1986.

"At that time, it worked out very well. It was a good program to have," said horse trainer, Larry Jones. The horses he trains include 2012 Kentucky Oaks winner Believe You Can. He has been training horses at Churchill Downs since 1982. "But, as time went on, and everybody wanted to start trying to get their horses in the Derby, that system kind of got old and outdated. Because they had so many 2-year-old races."

Instead, a new point system called the Road to the Kentucky Derby will be used to determine which 20 horses get into the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.

Churchill Downs Chairman and CEO Bob Evans said the Road to the Kentucky Derby will feature 36 stakes races and include 17 marquee events for three-year-old Thoroughbreds. It will comprise a 10-week run up to the Run for the Roses, and it will be known as the Kentucky Derby Championship Series.

The change will be in effect for the 139th Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 4, 2013.

The Kentucky Oaks race for three-year-old fillies, held the day before the Kentucky Derby, will adopt a similar point system for selecting its maximum of 14 starters.

"Our primary driving motive is to create new fans for horse racing," said Evans. "We're implementing a more fan-friendly, cohesive and simplified system that should create compelling drama and appeal to a wider customer base. Fans, as well as the owners and trainers of the horses, will know exactly which races are included and what races matter the most based on a sliding scale of points."

Evans also said the new system will help ensure the finest group of three-year-old Thoroughbreds ends up in the starting gate.

According to a Churchill Downs news release, the new Road to the Kentucky Derby series will be divided into two phases, each offering different points to the top four finishers of each race.

The Kentucky Derby Prep Season includes 19 races on dirt or synthetic surfaces over distances of at least one mile that are typically run between late September and late February. The lone exception is England's Royal Lodge, an international juvenile steppingstone that is carded at one mile on turf at Newmarket. These races traditionally serve as foundation-building races in advance of the "Kentucky Derby Championship Series." Points will be awarded to the top four finishers in each race on a 10-4-2-1 scale.

The Kentucky Derby Championship Series is a three-part series of 17 marquee races on dirt or synthetic surfaces over distances of at least one mile that are traditionally run over a compact, 10-week run up to the first Saturday in May:

  • The first leg, which mostly includes races that feed into the major Kentucky Derby launching pads, includes eight events – the Risen Star (Fair Grounds), Fountain of Youth (Gulfstream Park), Gotham (Aqueduct), Tampa Bay Derby (Tampa Bay Downs), San Felipe (Santa Anita), Rebel (Oaklawn Park), Spiral (Turfway Park) and Sunland Derby (Sunland Park) – with a 50-20-10-5 point scale;
  • The second leg features seven stakes races -- the Florida Derby (Gulfstream Park), UAE Derby (Meydan Racecourse), Louisiana Derby (Fair Grounds) Wood Memorial (Aqueduct), Santa Anita Derby (Santa Anita), Arkansas Derby (Oaklawn Park) and Blue Grass (Keeneland) -- that are worth 100-40-20-10; and
  • The final leg is two "wild card" events, the Lexington (Keeneland) and The Cliff's Edge Derby Trial (Churchill Downs), which offer some hope for horses to increase their point totals with a 20-8-4-2 scale.

The news release says the Top 20 point earners will earn a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate if more than 20 horses enter the race. Up to 24 horses may enter the race, and four horses can be listed as "also eligible" and would be ranked in order accordingly. They could draw into the field should any horse(s) be scratched in the days leading up to the race.

If two or more horses earn the same number of points, the tiebreaker to get into the Kentucky Derby or Kentucky Oaks will be earnings in non-restricted stakes races, whether they are graded or not.

In the event of a dead-heat in a Road to the Kentucky Derby race, those horses will divide equally the points they would have received jointly had one beaten the other.

Churchill Downs officials said they will review which races will be included in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series annually. Plans call for the schedule will be announced each July.

"If someone comes to us with an idea that we think is innovative and makes the Road to the Kentucky Derby better, we'll certainly be open to it," said Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery. "At this point and time, what we've assumed here is that the racetracks will run the same races under the same conditions around the same dates as last year. If not, we'll have to adjust the schedule."

Churchill Downs officials said they decided to make the change because a poll they commissioned showed that 83% of sports fans nationwide did not understand how a Thoroughbred qualified to compete in the Kentucky Derby.

"People understand that the Kentucky Derby is the Super Bowl of horse racing, but they don't understand what the 'league' structure is and what the series is to get there," Flanery said. "We think by simplifying this series with a point system, making it more cohesive and introducing the Kentucky Derby Championship Series in the 10 weeks that precede the race can spark fan interest and engage the casual fan earlier."

Casual horse racing fans WAVE 3 spoke to had their own thoughts.

"Before, it was the money and it was more or less politics, I think. A horse getting into the Derby. But, with the point system, it's going to be cut-and-dry. You're either there or your not there," said Tom Humphries in the Paddock area of Churchill Downs.

"I think it's harder to understand because they race around the country maybe," said casual horse racing fan, Autumn Brents. "And people don't follow it up that well. If it would be easier to follow, people would actually understand more about it."

Goldia Humphries is another racing fan.

"I think it's easier for other people to understand and I think it'll turn out real good," Goldia Humphries said.

Copyright 2012 WAVE News. All rights reserved.