BETTER HAVE POSITIONAL SPEED IN KENTUCKY DERBY
By Let’s Go Racing Parx,
By Dick Jerardi
When Churchill Downs introduced its Kentucky Derby points system with the 2013 Derby, it was to emphasize the most important 3-year-old prep races and de-emphasize 2-year-old form, especially early 2-year-old form. It was no longer about graded stakes earnings, but points earned in graded stakes, the closer to the Derby the more points on the line.
The speedy 2-year-old that won sprint stakes, but had no chance going a mile and a quarter was no longer going to make it to the Derby. What that did was eliminate the old crazy early paces that gave us 50-1 winners like Giacomo (2005) and Mine That Bird (2009). In fact, it has completely changed the Derby pace dynamic.
Now that all the 2022 Derby prep races are in the book, I decided to take a look back at the 10 years of the points system and nine years of Derby results. The study was illuminating on several levels.
First, I looked at where the winner was at the first call of every Derby from 1990-2012, 23 years in all. Then, I looked at where the winner has been at the first call over the last nine years.
The results of the study were kind of astounding; the deep closer has been all but eliminated after being a major factor for many years.
Factor out Orb coming from 16th in 2013 (the first year of the new points system when there was a pace meltdown) and the first across the wire from 2014-2021 have been in this position after the first call: 3, 3, 2, 2, 2, 1, 1, 1.
From 1990-2012 those numbers were: 11, 12, 12, 13, 2, 6, 15, 6, 8, 7, 15, 13, 1, 4, 4, 18, 5, 18, 4, 19, 6, 12, 7.
Second, I looked at where all the Derby winners (the first horse across the wire for our purposes so Medina Spirit and Maximum Security are considered winners) were ranked in the points system going into the race. The answer was: Orb (1), California Chrome (1), American Pharoah (4), Nyquist (2), Always Dreaming (7), Justify (9), Maximum Security (7), Authentic (2), Medina Spirit (8).
Third, I looked at the points system itself. Churchill divides the Road to the Kentucky Derby into two distinct groups of races – the Prep Season (23 races) and the Championship Series (16 races). The top four horses in each race earn points.
With the notable exception of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, there are just 17 total points on the line in each of the other Prep Season races. The BC Juvenile is a 34-point race, 20 points to the winner, 8 for second, 4 for third, 2 for fourth.
The Championship Series includes seven 85-point races (50 points to the winner), eight 170-point races (100 points to the winner) and one 34-point race (last Saturday’s Lexington Stakes).
The winner of those 15 big points races is essentially guaranteed a spot in the Derby starting gate. This year, the 85-point races began with the Feb. 19 Risen Star and ended with the March 27 Sunland Derby. The 170-point races began with the March 26 Louisiana Derby and ended with the April 9 Santa Anita Derby.
Epicenter is the only horse to win two of those 15 big points races this year, the Risen Star and the Louisiana Derby. The other 13 races were won by 13 different horses. Two of the races, the San Felipe and Tampa Bay Derby, were won by speed horses (Forbidden Kingdom and Classic Causeway) that are no longer under consideration for the Derby. Sunland Derby winner Slow Down Andy is also not running in the Derby.
So what does this all mean: find a horse with early speed that is in the top 10 in points. Which leaves us with the fast and talented Epicenter (164 points), White Abarrio (112) and Taiba (100).
You will hear a lot about the 20-horse field and the traffic issues in the next few weeks. It’s true for the good closers like Zandon, Mo Donegal, Tiz the Bomb and Smile Happy. It is not true for the faster horses which typically make the 20-horse race into a 3-horse (or fewer) race. If 17 horses are behind your horse, your horse is not in a 20-horse race.
So Epicenter, White Abarrio and Taiba. Now, we have a few weeks to decide on the correct order.