Archive for Nick Zito

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.”