Archive for Kentucky Derby

Could Churchill Use The Popularity of the Kentucky Derby to Make Positive Changes in Horse Racing???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Gary West of ESPN.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Churchill could spark change

Imagine a run-up to the Triple Crown that didn’t include the Florida Derby or the Fountain of Youth or the Louisiana Derby. Such an upheaval to so traditional a road is unlikely, of course, but if it did happen, if an imperative forced the highway to take a dramatic detour, then after a few shocking moments and a few more aftershocks it would probably be good for racing.

Yes, good for racing, salubrious even. The sport must make dramatic changes. Wagering on horse racing has declined 2.41 percent from a year ago, according to Equibase; purses are down, too. The stakeholders must shake off their inertia and embrace change. Racetracks can’t operate like little fiefdoms, nor states like islands. In the struggle to achieve uniform medication rules, Churchill Downs could do the sport a great service if it would strip the Florida Derby, the Fountain of Youth and the Louisiana Derby of all their precious Kentucky Derby qualifying points, and, even better, nullify the Lecomte, Holy Bull, Tampa Bay Derby and Risen Star Stakes, too, along with, don’t forget, the Delta Downs Jackpot.

Such extremes probably wouldn’t be necessary. A warning might suffice, making clear that all of Florida’s and Louisiana’s Derby preps could be erased from the ruddy Derby roadmap, effective in, perhaps, 2016. That warning would allow their advocates a little time to recover from apoplexy and attempt to do something about it.

And that, of course, would be the actual goal, their doing something about it. The threat of such a seismic shift would contribute to the longterm health of the sport if it forced Florida and Louisiana to adopt, at the very least, the Controlled Therapeutic Medication Schedule of the model rules recommended by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium and the Association of Racing Commissioners International. Keep in mind that these model rules developed by veterinarians and scientists are based on years of research and piles of data, not on horsemen’s hankering. The rules are strict, but also organic, incorporating the latest findings and analysis. And the rules’ adoption is positively essential if racing is to prosper, for they’re the foundation of the uniform rules that the sport desperately needs.

For any number of reasons, one of them being that Churchill owns the Fair Grounds racetrack in New Orleans, it’s a wild idea, linking the Kentucky Derby points to uniform rules. Then again, it’s even wilder, perhaps crazy, that there are no nationally uniform medication rules, and that’s really the point.

In the last year, horse racing has made significant, even great, progress towards the adoption of uniform medication rules. As a result, in the next year the number of states operating under the model medication rules will increase from four to 16. But, most notably, six states have yet to adopt the rules — Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio. They’re stuck in a morass of bureaucracy and, in some cases, stupidity. Churchill Downs could encourage them out of that morass, as could the American Graded Stakes Committee.

The American Graded Stakes Committee has added eight graded stakes for 2015 and two of those, the Sweetest Chant at Gulfstream Park and the Penn Mile at Penn National, are run in states that have not adopted the model medication rules. But Pennsylvania “should be very close to fully implementing” the model guidelines, according to Dionne Benson, who’s both a veterinarian and an attorney and so ideally qualified as the Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. And in Florida, she said, horsemen have endorsed the Controlled Therapeutic Medication Schedule; they’re not to blame. The obstacle to fully adopting the rules in Florida, she said, is largely legislative. Florida and Pennsylvania, in other words, have made significant progress in the general direction of uniform medication rules.

Oklahoma, on the other hand, has not. Oklahoma allows for the race-day use of phenylbutazone at a level that’s 2-1/2 times what the RMTC recommends in its model rules. In addition, Oklahoma permits the use of another pain-killer, flunixin (Banamine), and of two corticosteroids. Flagrantly and ponderously out of step with the progress throughout the sport, Oklahoma has the most permissive medication rules in the country. It’s a level of permissiveness that not only indulges some people’s inclination to rely more on medication than horsemanship, but also threatens to harm the bettors, the sport and, most important, the jockeys and horses. Regulators and horsemen there damage the sport and abuse its fans by not embracing medication reform and, more specifically, the model rules.

And so perhaps it’s not coincidental that the Springboard Mile is not among the eight races that in 2015 will be graded for the first time. Will Take Charge, the runner-up in the 2012 Springboard Mile, went on to be the next year’s champion 3-year-old. And at least the first three finishers in Sunday’s renewal at Remington Park in Oklahoma City — Bayerd, Shotgun Kowboy and High Noon Rider — appear to be very promising. Based on the quality of its competitors, the race is on the cusp of being graded. But based on the recalcitrance of Oklahoma’s medication policies, neither the Springboard Mile nor any other stakes in Oklahoma will be graded anytime soon, even though Remington Park itself has publicly and officially supported the model rules.

Based on the quality of its competitors, the race is on the cusp of being graded. But based on the recalcitrance of Oklahoma’s medication policies, neither the Springboard Mile nor any other stakes in Oklahoma will be graded anytime soon, even though Remington Park itself has publicly and officially supported the model rules.

Clearly the American Graded Stakes Committee has paired progress on medication reform with grading. Grading stakes is a powerful tool, and in this regard the committee is using it wisely for the amelioration of the sport. The message is that no racing jurisdiction can prosper as an island. The next step would be to downgrade existing graded stakes in states that have not adopted the model rules. Pennsylvania, you and your Penn Mile have a year. Florida, you have a year before the Donn and the Gulfstream Park Handicap slip to Grade 2.

But in some jurisdictions, Churchill Downs has an even more powerful goad, those cherished Kentucky Derby points that determine who’ll be in the roseate field. Would Florida lawmakers continue to loll in their morass if their derby were about to be relegated? That’s a question Churchill could ask for the good of the sport — might even enjoy asking.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

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Will the Derby and Preakness Wins Be Enough For “Chrome” To Hold Off Shared Belief for Three Year Old of the Year????

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Steven Crist of DRF.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Double Crown title streak could end

As any schoolchild knows, every 3-year-old since 1978 who won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness failed to win the Belmont Stakes and complete the Triple Crown. But did you know there’s an even longer streak regarding the winners of the first two legs of the Triple Crown?

Since the Eclipse Awards began in 1971 through last year, 16 horses have won the Derby and Preakness – and every single one of them won the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old: Canonero II (1971), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2001), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004), Big Brown (2007), I’ll Have Another (2012) and … wait, not so fast on adding California Chrome (2014) to the list.

After Shared Belief’s impressive victory against his elders in the Pacific Classic last Sunday, he inched ahead of the idle California Chrome in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s weekly Horse of the Year poll. (Shared Belief and California Chrome are now ranked second and third behind the 7-year-old gelding Wise Dan.)

You have to go back 45 years, before the dawn of the Eclipses, to find a 3-year-old who won the Derby and Preakness but was not acknowledged as the division’s champion: That would be Majestic Prince in 1969. He beat Arts and Letters by a neck in the Derby and by a head in the Preakness, but Arts and Letters beat him by 5 1/2 lengths in the Belmont and then reeled off consecutive victories in the Jim Dandy, Travers, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. (He also won the Blue Grass and, in between the Preakness and Belmont, the Met Mile.) Arts and Letters was understandably acclaimed as the champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year.

It looked as if things might go the same way a couple of times since. Twenty years after Arts and Letters, Easy Goer had a very similar streak after falling short to Sunday Silence in the Derby and Preakness. He was heavily favored to complete the turnaround in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but then Sunday Silence beat him for the third time in four meetings and was deservedly a nearly unanimous choice.

In 2003, it seemed that Empire Maker had edged ahead of Funny Cide when he beat him in the Belmont, giving him a 2-1 lead in head-to-head meetings and a 3-2 lead in Grade 1 victories. Neither one of them, however, won a race past June, and by the time ballots were due in December, Funny Cide’s Derby and Preakness made it seem to a majority of voters that he had been the more successful 3-year-old and deserved the nod.

The 2004 voting would have been interesting if Birdstone had won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. After denying Smarty Jones’s bid for the Triple Crown by beating him in the Belmont, Birdstone returned to win the Travers. Would a BC Classic victory have pushed him past the Derby-Preakness winner? We’ll never know since he finished seventh, and Smarty Jones was an easy Eclipse winner.

So, the question now is whether Shared Belief can catch up to a Derby-Preakness winner. Let’s say he makes his fourth and final start of an unbeaten 3-year-old season in the BC Classic and wins it, beating California Chrome in their only meeting. Would it be enough? California Chrome would still have a 3-2 lead in Grade 1 wins (Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness vs. Pacific Classic and BC Classic), but Shared Belief’s two big victories would have been against older horses instead of the uninspiring 3-year-olds whom California Chrome was walloping last spring.

Still, winning the Derby and Preakness is a powerful double that tends to look even better in hindsight. The discussion then comes down to accomplishment vs. talent. It’s possible that one could simultaneously believe at season’s end that Shared Belief is the better horse but that California Chrome accomplished more this year.

It would be a fascinating debate if we get that far. Maybe the best part is that this could develop into more than a one-race rivalry: California Chrome is scheduled to race as a 4-year-old, and Shared Belief is a gelding with an unlimited future on the track. These things are always best settled on the racetrack, so here’s hoping.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

Derby Provides Many Things, Including a Level Playing Field for Connections

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Eric Crawford of WDRB.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

In The Derby, Royalty and Regulars Race on Even Playing Field

I know that horse racing has problems. They will run the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, and most sports fans in America won’t pay much more attention to the sport until this time next year, unless the Triple Crown becomes a possibility, or there’s an unfortunate tragedy.

This week we’ve heard renewed concerns about the well-being of racehorses. They’re legitimate. We’ve heard complaints about the way Churchill Downs is treating horsemen and other longtime racing fixtures. Those too, completely legitimate.

One walk through the Kentucky Derby Museum (which you should absolutely make, by the way) is enough to remind you that the sport isn’t what it used to be. I’ll go one better. The horses aren’t what they used to be. The breed is not as stable, the horses not as durable or, really, even as fast, despite all the breeding for speed. It’s a sport and a breed in decline.

I know all the problems. But this is why you should care about the Kentucky Derby. This is what this one horse race has over every other major sporting event in the nation, and perhaps the world.

There is no more democratic event in sports. They used to call it the sport of kings. These days, you also could call it the sport of kings for a day.

Consider the millions of dollars Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum has spent trying to win this race. (And, by the way, I’m grateful for his presence in the sport, and hope one day he is successful.) But he isn’t here in the Derby this year, and has need won it.

Daniel and Lori Dougherty are here. The Louisville residents who used to own a furniture store paid the bargain basement price of $25,000 for the son of Curlin, and got the deal on him because he had a turned-in foot. His trainer, “Bronco” Billy Gowan was down to one horse not too long ago, because of injuries. That one horse was this one, who Calvin Borel will ride in the Derby.

It’s not the only story. Each year brings new ones.

You can watch the Super Bowl, where billionaire owners whose teams play in publicly financed stadiums clash in battles of blue-bloods.

In the Kentucky Derby, the blue bloods are trying to get in. The Doughertys have been offered more than a million for their colt. No way.

The owners of California Chrome have been offered six times that. Steve Coburn and Perry Martin call their operation “Dumb-Ass Partners,” and some would say it’s exactly that to turn down a $6 million offer. Coburn didn’t like the idea of some big-shot coming in and buying the Kentucky Derby. “The offer came from somebody who never put on a pair of boots to go to work in the morning,” he said.

No sale.

I’m not saying horse racing isn’t a rich person’s game. It is. It always has been. But you can spend a ton of money and never make it to the Kentucky Derby. You can breed and wheel and deal and never feel the excitement of your horse on the track when “My Old Kentucky Home” is played.

The most expensive colt ever bought at auction — for $16 million — raced three times, never won, and was retired. A colt that was bred for a $2,500 stud fee is the favorite for this year’s Derby.

Name me another sport in which people with regular jobs walk onto a level playing field with royalty.

In this year’s Derby, there are syndicates and causes, Wounded Warrior project benefactors and wine distributors. Wildcat Red is owned by Salvatore Delfino and his wife Josie Martino Delfino, wine importer/exporters from Venezuela.

Art Sherman, trainer of California Chrome, has been trying to train a Kentucky Derby starter his whole life. Others get here quickly.

Wicked Strong runs in memory of the Boston Marathon bombing victims. Samraat is owned by the the chairman of Barnes & Noble, Leonard Riggio, who built the bookstore giant out of one college bookstore he opened in 1965.

The Dale Romans-trained Medal Count is owned by historic Spendthrift Farm. Commanding Curve is owned by West Point Thoroughbreds, a syndicate founded by Terry Finley, a former artillery officer.

They come from all over. The super wealthy, the moderately well-to-do, and the ones who have poured everything into this opportunity hoping it will lead to more.

The special thing about the first Saturday in May is that no matter how many resources they have, when the horses go into the paddock, it’s saddle, and rider, and talent and luck that will determine who fades, and who goes down in history. And there’s not a bank account on the track that can change that.

Sure, you can buy the Kentucky Derby. But you can also spend hundreds of millions and not buy it. Of the 49 most expensive yearlings purchased at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale in 2012, none will start in the Kentucky Derby. You have to get to Intense Holiday, the 50th most expensive, to find a starter.

In a world where, increasingly, money rules all, the Derby has a way of breaking wealthy hearts as easily as anyone else’s.

Horse racing has problems, yes. I’m not even suggesting that anyone forget about them.

But for two minutes on the first Saturday in May, it doesn’t matter how much money you have. It matters how much horse you have. It doesn’t matter if you got to Churchill Downs in a private jet flown halfway around the world or a horse trailer from New Mexico. For two minutes in May, money doesn’t matter.

It’s not often in sports you can say that anymore.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

In The Process of Growing, Did Churchill Downs Lose Its Charm???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Paul Moran of ESPN.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Progress is no subtle beast

First images can be burned forever into memory.

The Grand Canyon. Niagara Falls. The Colosseum in Rome. Big Sur. The Manhattan skyline. The twin spires at Churchill Downs silhouetted against the gentle illumination of first light viewed from the end of the mile chute.

That image now lingers only in memory. The iconic spires remain but are now dwarfed by the towering expanses built to accommodate luxury suites and casinos that have yet to be embraced by Kentucky politicians. The top floors of the new version of Churchill Downs look down on the spires, the historic track’s once crowning glory overshadowed by what some see as progress, others as desecration by architecture.

The Churchill Downs landscape, the Kentucky Derby and the city that is home to both have undergone dramatic evolution since the last Derby winner won the Triple Crown.

Kentucky itself has seen marked change in the past 30 years. The distillation of bourbon is constant, but the autumn air around Lexington no longer carries the pungent scent of curing tobacco. Poultry, not horses, is the state’s largest agricultural product. The breeding industry has contracted as other states offer generous incentives fueled by proceeds from alternative gaming. Louisville has become a livable city.

When Affirmed beat Alydar in the Derby of 1978, Louisville was very much a river town struggling almost apologetically to keep up with the 20th century. Churchill Downs, up close, looked like the work of a dyslexic madman with a life-size erector set, and the Derby was the only race run there that mattered.

What is now a vibrant city — with a nationally prominent medical community, rejuvenated historical districts, diverse cultural alternatives, good restaurants and hotels, expansive public parks, colleges and a large university, accommodating suburbs, nightlife, and an active downtown — has evolved from a town that not too long ago hunkered down on the southern bank of the Ohio River, doing its best to avoid the attention of outsiders except when they brought money in copious sums during the first weekend of May.

In that Louisville, there were, at most, four habitable hotels, at least two of which required a taste for (or at least tolerance of) sketchy decor and all things musty and worn. There were fewer acceptable restaurants capable of much more than a regional stew known as burgoo or a plate of congealed cheese, sliced turkey and tomato known as a “hot brown.” Both were acquired tastes. There was, however, an abundance of dark and often-forbidding bars, most of which had windows decorated with neon signs that said either “Whiskey” or “Girls, Girls, Girls.”

Louisville in 2013 barely resembles the city in which Affirmed beat Alydar, an era that predates guided morning tours of the Churchill Downs backstretch, the orchestrated and convoluted draw for post position staged inconveniently in late afternoon, point systems, and a race presented by a fast-food conglomerate that sells more fried chicken in China than in the land of Colonel Sanders.

There was no Churchill Downs Inc. in those days. The home of the Derby was simply Churchill Downs, a racing association without greater ambition. The stock was owned primarily by people with an interest in the sport and was thinly traded. A typical racing card was not discernibly better than those offered at nearby River Downs or what was then known at Latonia, now Turfway Park, generally cheap horses even on the Derby-day supporting card. In the pre-Internet infancy of simulcasting, there was no advance-deposit wagering platform, no consideration of shareholder interest. With “Inc.” came acquisitions in Florida, Chicago and New Orleans as well as a tote company, casinos and an online poker enterprise. The Derby went from big race to an industry unto itself. With “Inc.” came a new image and a view focused on the bottom line. Homespun, how-y’all-doin’ Churchill Downs was gone, never to return.

This is how the present-day “Inc.” describes itself:

“CDI is a diversified growth company built around three core businesses.

“Our Racing operations occupy more than 800 acres of real estate in four cities: Arlington Park in Arlington Heights, Ill.; Calder Casino & Race Course in Miami Gardens, Florida; Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots in New Orleans, Louisiana; and Churchill Downs Racetrack in Louisville, Ky., home of the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks.

“Our Gaming operations consist of 33,000 square feet of gaming space, including slots machines, table games and a poker room at Harlow’s Casino Resort & Hotel in Greenville, Miss., 1,245 slot machines and poker room at the Calder Casino, 606 slot machines at the Fair Grounds Slots venue, and 809 video poker machines at our 11 off-track-betting establishments in New Orleans.

“Our online operations include our Internet wagering business, TwinSpires.com, an interest in the horse racing television network HRTV and our Bloodstock Research and Information Services business which provides handicapping and breeding data and publications.”

Rapidly expanding “Inc.” needed an upgraded image, and the eyesore that was Churchill Downs beneath the spires — a patchwork of metalwork in which each of many expansions was clearly evident — fell to the 20th century. From 2001 to 2005, the track underwent a 3½ year, $121 million renovation. The clubhouse and grandstand were replaced with a pair of huge buildings that house 79 luxury suites. The corporate culture overtook the hard boots. The twin spires, an iconic landmark, became a logo.

This ain’t your daddy’s Churchill Downs. There was a certain charm that is no longer part of the racing experience in Louisville. Old Churchill welcomed you back every spring like an old friend. “Inc.” is impersonal and aloof. It revolves around return-on-investment and share price, not tradition. It could be anywhere.

But for all its commercial diversification and ever-widening sphere, “Inc.” still lives and dies with two days in May. Derby eve, Oaks day, was once known as “Louisville’s day at the races,” until “Inc.” — recognizing a captive audience when it saw one — introduced the requirement to purchase tickets for both days and moved the celebration for locals to Thursday.

On most days, Churchill Downs is like any other racetrack — generally empty. Night racing on Fridays has been popular, but day to day, few rattle around in a place built to accommodate large crowds. Unlike other tracks, it has this advantage: About a quarter-million people will be in attendance over the weekend and “Inc.” will maximize the opportunity. There is no draw in American sport quite like the Derby, which holds an audience for some eight hours from first post until last, much of that time devoted to eating, drinking and gambling.

With its various enterprises, “Inc.” now enjoys a national scope that expands exponentially into the international market on the first Saturday of May, but most outside Louisville or without direct connection to the racing industry still know it only as the racetrack that hosts the Kentucky Derby.

Once upon a time, that was enough.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

Rebel Stakes Proof That New Derby Points System Works???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Gary West of ESPN.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Rebel proof new points system works

Those Kentucky Derby scholarships have been revoked, those free rides discontinued that would have led to a reserved stall in the starting gate. Sixteen spots for the Derby remain open and vacant; they wait to be won. And so the next five weeks could produce some of the most exciting and competitive racing ever seen on this modern interstate highway system that annually leads to Kentucky.

It’s a healthy situation for the sport, and it’s largely a result of the new point system employed by Churchill Downs. When announced last year, the new system met with skepticism and with tiresome cackles of “If it ain’t broke …” The usual parties circled around, quite predictably, to protect their own interests, whether they were the entitlements of precocious 2-year-olds or the exalted status of certain races. Only a few observers, it seemed, even acknowledged that there might be a larger question, as in whether this change would be good for racing. Well, it is. It’s very good for racing, which the upcoming weeks will demonstrate.

As you’re undoubtedly aware, points in designated races have replaced earnings in graded stakes as the criterion for determining the 20 Kentucky Derby starters. But why is that improvement, and why is it salubrious for the sport?

If the earlier method were still employed today, then at least 12 Triple Crown nominees, not counting fillies or injured horses, such as Violence and Ive Struck A Nerve, would already have a bankroll large enough to virtually guarantee them a run at the famed roses. Even worse, they wouldn’t necessarily be the 12 most worthy horses, nor would they be the fans’ most desirable dozen.

He’s Had Enough, for example, has $442,000 in graded earnings, most of that ($360,000) from his runner-up finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, a race that nearly disintegrated in the overheated turbulence of its pace. Under the graded-earnings criterion, that $442,000 would have reserved him a starting spot in the Kentucky Derby.

Last year, with earnings in graded stakes of $184,708, Optimizer was the 20th horse to qualify for the Derby. In 2010, Make Music For Me needed $218,750 in graded earnings to gain the 20th spot in the Derby, and that was the most ever required.

In other words, under the former rules, He’s Had Enough would have earned all he needed in the Juvenile; he, in effect, would have won a Kentucky Derby scholarship by finishing second last November at Santa Anita. But does he deserve a scholarship, a free ride into the Derby? Should he already have a reserved stall in the starting gate and a saddle towel adorned with a Derby logo and his name? After all, he has won only once in his career, a maiden race in his debut. And since the Breeders’ Cup, he has finished fifth in the CashCall Futurity, third (which was also next to last) in the Robert Lewis Stakes and fifth in the Fountain of Youth, beaten by a total of nearly 27 lengths.

Does Fortify deserve a scholarship? With $220,000 in graded earnings as a 2-year-old, he would have had one under the former system, even though he has won only once in his career and finished sixth in his most recent outing in Dubai.

In the new qualifying format, a horse might need something around 40 points to assure himself a place in the roseate lineup. He’s Had Enough has six points and Fortify three, but with 12 races remaining that offer points, they still have the opportunity to earn their way into the Kentucky Derby, and that’s, well, the point. The new system is more meritocratic.

And, in fact, it was indeed broken, that old system for determining the Derby starters. For evidence of that, just look at the leading graded money winners among this year’s Triple Crown nominees and ask yourself how many of the top 20 should run in the Kentucky Derby.

Grades were never intended to be used for winnowing the Derby chaff from the Derby contenders. Success in a six-furlong race for 2-year-olds or in a turf race, no matter what their grades, isn’t predictive of success in the Kentucky Derby. And, frankly, Churchill Downs was foolish ever to allow the Graded Stakes Committee to determine who runs in the Derby. Why would you throw a million-dollar party and let some committee in Lexington make out the guest list?

But with its point system, Churchill took possession of its Derby this year, and the consequences of that decision are already looking very positive. Only four horses — Hear The Ghost, Orb, Verrazano and Vyjack, who all have 50 points — are already in the Derby.

And so, 16 spots are open with 12 races remaining. That’s the sort of drama fans love. Does the new system place too much emphasis on these final races, which are worth more points than earlier preps?

Pondering that question and having realized that the foremost Triple Crown candidate in his barn, Uncaptured, would have, because of a minor injury, only two races prior to the Derby, trainer Mark Casse said, “If a horse can’t run well in either of his final preps, then he shouldn’t be in the Derby.”

If that seems apostasy, it’s because the Derby scholarship has become so accepted. But the scholarships have been revoked and the free rides discontinued.

No, this year, for many, getting into the Derby comes down to these final prep races. Momentum is building; stakes are rising. To reserve a place for himself in the Churchill starting gate, Shanghai Bobby needs another good outing in the Florida Derby, but is that too much to ask of a champion? Revolutionary needs a one-two finish in the Louisiana Derby, Normandy Invasion needs to put his troubles behind him in the Wood, and Uncaptured must return with his best form in either the Spiral or the Blue Grass if they’re to earn their way into the Kentucky Derby.

These final preps are going to reverberate with drama and intrigue. Just look at Saturday’s Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, worth 50 points to the winner, which, of course, is tantamount to a berth in the Kentucky Derby.

Super Ninety Nine, who won the Southwest Stakes in a romp, has returned from California and appears formidable, even intimidating, but few have backed down. In fact, the field is laden with speed, with the sort of horses that could challenge Super Ninety Nine early. Delhomme, for example, who finished third after leading until deep stretch in the Remsen, is making his seasonal debut. Oxbow, who won the Lecomte Stakes by more than 11 lengths before a troubled trip and a fourth in the Risen Star Stakes, could also challenge. Treasury Bill and Den’s Legacy would probably benefit from a lively and contentious pace, and then there’s Carve, an intriguing sort if only because he’s unbeaten.

It’s a terrific race, this Rebel, and it’s just the next step in this progression. Partly because of a new point system, the next five weeks could offer some of the most exciting and competitive racing ever seen on this modern thoroughfare that leads to Kentucky.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

What Makes The Kentucky Derby So Special?

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Paul Moran of ESPN.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

The Kentucky Derby Mystique

By late afternoon, the shadows lengthened, 20 horses appear at the gap above the first turn on the Churchill Downs backstretch, gleaming, face to face at last with the moment in their young lives that will either define them forever in history or leave them little more than footnotes among thousands in the Kentucky Derby’s ether.

The ritual begins with the walkover, the procession every owner of a thoroughbred aspires to experience. For the moment, the playing field is level and the attention of an assemblage of humanity in all its forms that spans at least three time zones becomes fixed upon the combatants. At the track, cheers of encouragement ebb and flow, a reflection of status in the betting pools and success in races that began in January and, furlong upon furlong, are now at their backs on the “Road to the Derby,” a thoroughfare with far more egress than access.

By then, Churchill Downs quivers in electric anticipation, a communal, even tribal preparation for what will follow. The field, accompanied with solemn humans aware of the magnitude of what will come within the hour, is led into the tight saddling enclosure, packed with the connected and those in the entourage, encircled by those who that morning had claimed a vantage point from which to view the Derby horses and exercised the timeless right of squatters. Once led through the tunnel and onto the racetrack, jockeys astride, they are gone from sight to most without very expensive seating accommodations — into the noise. Even for those so privileged, watching the unfolding scene unencumbered is a stretch of concentration.

Whether the epidemic, well-documented weeping that underscores the chorus of “My Old Kentucky Home” that accompanies the parade to the post is the product of nostalgia, bourbon, beer or random emotion is a matter of speculation, but it happens as anticipation gathers momentum, spreads through the crowd and ripples over an infield packed cheek to jowl with besotted revelers who arrived at first light, have not seen a horse race all day and will have no view of the Derby. Who cares? We’re here!

The first Saturday of March is yet at hand, its springtime counterpart two full months away, and already the search has begun. Snow covers much of Arizona, a blizzard rages in the Midwest and tornados threaten the South. Distractions will not deter the search for a Derby horse, the gem plucked from a thicket. More than 350 3-year-old thoroughbreds, most yet unknown, remain eligible. Several will have raced in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, in Florida, where Orb raised his profile in a very big way, or in the Risen Star Stakes in New Orleans, which deepened the confusion in the South on Saturday last, revealing something perhaps or perhaps not. This is, after all, the point at which confusion becomes part of the equation.

Then, turn to the to-do list. Make reservations for a weekend in May in Louisville — travel, hotels, restaurants, all at three times the usual price. Women shop for elegant hats they will not wear twice. The less ambitious, affluent, locale or duty-bound plan parties in their homes, and these, too, have become traditions at once raucous, solemn and mandatory. From Saratoga Springs to San Diego, there is a celebration, it seems, on every block.

It is not quite clear exactly the point at which the Kentucky Derby became an American icon rather than merely a big day in a niche sport, but it has been so longer than any of us have walked the earth. Perhaps, though, it is a singular enduring vestige of a time when racing was much more than a niche sport, when its giants were superstars on a greater stage. Those days long gone, the Derby remains part of the American tapestry, a cultural anomaly in these times but nevertheless eternal.

“This is the week when dear ladies in Shawano, Wis., get to know about sports figures named Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster,” the legendary New York Times columnist Red Smith wrote in 1979. “Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster are thoroughbred race horses and there are vast and sinless areas in this country where they and their like are regarded as instruments of Satan 51 weeks a year. Then comes the week of the Kentucky Derby, and sinless newspapers that wouldn’t mention a horse any other time unless he kicked the mayor to death are full of information about steeds that will run and the people they will run for at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May.”

The aura of the Derby has outlasted the useful print media and the racing writer is all but extinct in the realm of the American daily newspaper, the gap filled nowadays by television and online sources. Smith likely never heard words such as blog and Twitter. The Derby, however, remains undoubtedly — stubbornly — the most anticipated two minutes in American sport, part of the culture. But no one has ever fully explained how the Derby became the most popular and high-profile horse race run in the Western Hemisphere, with interest that has been expanded to Europe and even Asia.

“This is a day for anyone involved with horses,” said Bill Turner, who trained the undefeated 1977 Derby and Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew. “There’s nothing like it.”

But it is much more than a day for anyone involved with horses. For them, it is Christmas in May, the focus of all existence. For the rest of the nation, it is Mardi Gras in springtime.

Explaining the Derby’s enduring and in fact growing popularity is a matter of conjecture. Many, human and equine, have contributed to its evolution. But the most durable explanation is that Col. Matt Winn, who operated Churchill Downs for a half century, was a master showman who took the Derby from local celebration to the national stage by luring the most prominent sports journalists of the era to Louisville, paying expenses and supplying entertainment that endeared the river town, the racetrack and its leader to the ink-stained wretches who availed themselves unabashedly to the copious largesse and spread the word to those in the nation’s largest cities, where racing fans lived.

The truth is that Wynn was a Louisville tailor who before taking the leadership of Churchill Downs promoted racing at Empire City in Yonkers, N.Y., a harness track, and Juarez in Mexico — a skilled promoter and student of human nature both consumptive and carnal, but perhaps not the visionary that stands embellished in time and Derby lore, a work still in progress. Undoubtedly, Winn never envisioned the 21st century fruit of the seeds he had sewn.

Winn, however, cannot be denied a singular success pivotal to the Derby’s ascent in the national sporting conscience. He lured the connections of celebrated champion 2-year-old filly Regret, who was based in the East and had yet to race as a 3-year-old, to the Derby of 1915.

When jockey Joe Notter brought Regret home a two-length winner and she became the first filly to triumph in the Derby, it brought a floodtide of national attention to the race. Even then, truly great fillies held a special place in the public heart.

“The race needed only a victory by Regret to create some more coast-to-coast publicity to really put it over,” Winn said after Regret’s popular triumph. “She did not fail us. Regret made the Kentucky Derby an American institution.”

And so it remains.

Racing’s burgeoning transcontinental popularity during the Great Depression and into the post World War II era, when it competed for public attention only with baseball and boxing, contributed mightily to the Derby’s entrenchment in the sporting landscape, a period during which Omaha, War Admiral, Count Fleet, Assault and Citation would win the big race in Louisville and Triple Crown long before that designation was imparted to the sweep of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Television, still in its infancy during the 1950s, played a huge role in expanding the Derby’s sphere, bringing to American homes not only the race itself, but introducing the significant players during broadcasts of preliminary races to winter-bound cities with no more than one or two stations. The emerging technology of the time failed to fully convey the experience and still fails in the present age of the high-definition flat-screen and surround sound.

John Steinbeck, the novelist, wrote this after attending the Derby for the first time and experiencing Needles’ win in 1956:

“By the time this is written, there will be few people in the nation who will not have seen the race on television or heard it on radio, and they will all have felt to some extent the bursting emotion at Churchill Downs. Every step of the great Needles will have been discussed — how he dawdled along trailing the field for two-thirds of the course, then fired himself like a torpedo past the screaming stands and the straining horses to win while the balloon of tension swelled and burst and it was all over.

“Now there is a languor. Over a hundred thousand hearts are more spent than Needles’ heart, and some of them split and their owners on the way to the hospital or the morgue.

“I am fulfilled and weary. This Kentucky Derby, whatever it is — a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion — is one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things I have ever experienced. And I suspect that, as with other wonders, the people one by one have taken from it exactly as much good or evil as they brought to it.

“What an experience. I am glad I have seen and felt it at last.”

Steinbeck’s experience is shared and understood fully by anyone who has been at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of any May and was still sober at post time. The place during that two minutes engulfs the consciousness, overwhelms the senses, making it all but impossible to hear anything except a building roar or remain fully aware of what transpires on the racetrack until the horses are in direct view. It is possible to identify the animal about to be enshrined in the Louisville pantheon, and even then you wait to watch the replay before you are certain of the outcome. Literally, the building if not the ground beneath shakes. The experience is enveloping, every witness immersed entirely, a rapture two minutes long that reaches crescendo as the leader enters the final furlong, screams to the heavens and fades slowly in an almost languorous sweetness.

At some point, the leaders of Churchill Downs, a group during most of the track’s long history far less straight-backed and corporate than the one that has come to power, discovered that celebrity sells an image. What the late seminal gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson depicted as decadent in an early ’70s account of the Derby lives today, represented by Millionaires’ Row, where celebrities, entertainers, athletes and titans of industry celebrate the day apart from the merely wealthy and sufficiently affluent who have secured less exclusive dining options. With the possible exception of the Super Bowl, no American sporting event attracts a wider array of famous and beautiful people lured from Hollywood and Broadway not only by the race and ritual ribaldry, but also by the largesse that in another time, at Col. Winn’s behest, lured prominent media figures to cover the Derby and spread its gospel. Priority and the Derby’s public face have been transformed, but not the eventual result.

The cognoscenti began the search for the 2013 Derby winner last year, at Saratoga, Belmont Park, Keeneland and Santa Anita, hoping to identify true 10-furlong-in-May talent in eight furlongs of September. Others take up the quest in January in hope of placing an ante-post wager that will produce a handsome profit. Sometimes, being the smartest person at the neighborhood Derby party is sufficient.

Whatever the vantage point or accommodation in various weathers, they have witnessed unforgettable performances by truly great thoroughbreds — Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Barbaro — horses they will never forget at their best on unforgettable afternoons in Kentucky. At its very heart, the Derby is about the breed and the place.

The eternal pursuit of the nearly impossible, for those involved with horses, is no less a siren now than it has ever been. For them, every thoroughbred foal is three years from a destiny realized by only one. For others, the Derby endures because it is eight months of speculation leading to a moment of truth; two minutes of a year shared by a nation and much of the world; attention undivided by global tensions, politics or the financial markets. It is true purity of competition among horses born to this moment with all odds against, a purity to which we all aspire but few capture, something somehow beyond full human understanding.

Or even, perhaps, explanation.

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The Pros and Cons of the New Derby Points System

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Jennie Rees of Courier-Journal…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Road to the Derby may have bumps under new setup

Unbeaten champion Shanghai Bobby — winner of the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and two other prestigious 2-year-old stakes — makes his 2013 debut Saturday in a race designed to propel the colt toward the May 4 Kentucky Derby.

But unlike previous Breeders’ Cup Juvenile victors, Shanghai Bobby is not yet guaranteed a spot in the starting gate for the 139th running of the Derby.

That’s because Churchill Downs has switched the formula for determining preference if more than the capacity 20 horses are entered, as has become the norm.

Churchill announced last June that it was ditching graded-stakes earnings and replacing it with a tiered points system heavily weighted toward the 11/8-mile prep races in late March and April.

So Shanghai Bobby doesn’t just have to stay healthy until the Derby, the champion also has to prove all over again that he belongs there.

That’s the No. 1 criticism of the new system, one of the most fundamental changes in Derby history. To many trainers and owners, that’s like making the Masters champion qualify the next year to play in the golf classic.

Last fall, Churchill senior management asked Louisville civic leader and horse owner Ed Glasscock what he thought. He is a partner in Shanghai Bobby.

“I said, ‘Do you want me to respond to that question when we have a horse who has won the Breeders’ Cup and every major 2-year-old race, has made $1.6 million and is not qualified for the Kentucky Derby?’ ” he recalled with a laugh.

Glasscock said he often tells the top players at Churchill that, “If Shanghai Bobby cannot live up to our expectations during the 3-year-old spring and season, then maybe he doesn’t deserve to be in the Derby.’

“I say that to be nice. But do I really feel that way? No. He deserves to be in the Derby … whether he wins another race or not.”

Others agree.

“The winner of the Breeders’ Cup should be an automatic,” said trainer Kenny McPeek, who will try to beat Shanghai Bobby with the colt Frac Daddy in today’s $400,000 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park in Florida.

Whoever wins the 11/16-mile, Grade III Holy Bull will earn 10 points toward the Derby. That’s the same as Shanghai Bobby earned for winning the Breeders’ Cup last November in California — and the same number available for the ungraded, $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes in Arkansas earlier this week.

Churchill officials expect the new structure will organize the prep races into the equivalent of a regular season and playoffs, making it easier for fans to relate and sparking more interest.

The track said studies showed the average person doesn’t know what graded stakes are — they’re the world’s most important races, as designated by a committee — while points are easier to follow.

For the series it’s calling the Road to the Kentucky Derby, Churchill pared about 185 races worldwide down to 36 — the vast majority being historically prominent Derby preps. Points are awarded to the top four finishers in each event, starting out with a 10-4-2-1 allocation and building to races with a 100-40-20-10 payout.

Churchill says the goal is to come up with the 20 horses in the best form and best equipped to handle the Derby’s 11/4-mile.

The biggest changes: No race less than a mile was included, the only turf race was one last fall in England, races restricted to fillies do not count toward the points, and only three foreign races count.

The $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile having the same points (10 to the winner) as other 2-year-old stakes and preps held early in the 3-year-old season is one criticism. Another is that Hawthorne’s Illinois Derby — which produced 2002 Derby winner War Emblem — was excluded.

Darren Rogers — Churchill’s senior director of publicity who did much of the modeling and numbers-crunching as track staff debated what system to install — estimates that 40 points should secure a Derby berth, and that horses probably are safe at 30.

D. Wayne Lukas, a four-time winner, contends the format will force trainers to do things they don’t want to so they can be sure they have enough points. “If you wait for one of those 100-point races, saying that will pretty much get you in, what if you stumble at the start or get wiped out? It forces us as trainers to run them more often. Every one of us has to look at another race that we probably wouldn’t have looked at before.”

Rogers says he appreciates trainers’ misgivings but believes they are largely unfounded, that the concerns with gaining enough points most often will be no different than seeking earnings.

Rogers said it doesn’t eliminate the benefits of winning races with big-money purses, because the tiebreaker — which figures to come into play with any points system — is the most earnings in non-restricted stakes.

“The Kentucky Derby is the Holy Grail for our sport,” he said. “It should not be easy to get into the race. We’ve eliminated some of the backdoor routes, quote, unquote. Sprint races. Turf races. Races where the competition was softer but the purses were lofty.

“Look, when you go from 185 races to 36, it becomes more challenging. They’re probably forced to make some tough decisions, especially those with large groups of contenders. There aren’t as many spots to choose from. We understand that. We hear them. We just believe we’re going in the right direction.”

Nick Zito, a two-time Derby winner, is fine with the system. He notes that his 2010 Derby runner-up Ice Box and 2011 beaten Derby favorite Dialed In might not have made the race had they not won the Florida Derby. Under the points system, a second or even third in such a 100-point race should be sufficient.

“My horses seem to come around later,” Zito said. “So this format is not too bad.”

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