Lexington, KY - As three-year-old Thoroughbreds across the country prepare for the first Saturday in May, navigating the road to this year’s Kentucky Derby is different than it has ever been before.
The 20 horses loading into the starting gate at Churchill Downs have historically been chosen based on their earnings in graded stakes races. In June 2012, Churchill Downs Incorporated announced a qualifying points system dubbed the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” featuring 36 stakes races, the top placings in which carry points toward a start in the Derby. A similar system was created for the Kentucky Oaks, Churchill Downs’ marquee race for 3-year-old fillies the day before the 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,” said Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery. “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. If there’s compelling drama and people have a better understanding of what it takes to get into the Derby, we think there’s a good chance they’ll become more interested in our sport.”
Churchill officials chose to limit the types of races that could count toward a Derby start. Turf races and sprint races are excluded from the system, and a lesser emphasis is placed on races for two-year-olds in the fall season before the run for the roses. Fillies may still run against the boys in the Kentucky Derby, but their Oaks points do not count toward a start in the Derby, so a female candidate must make at least one successful run against males before facing them in May. Each of the three fillies who previously won the Kentucky Derby (Regret in 1915, Genuine Risk in 1980, and Winning Colors in 1988) started against males before winning the roses.
On Saturday, Turfway Park held the Grade 3 $550,000 Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati Spiral Stakes, marking the start of the series in Kentucky for this year.
Black Onyx and rider Joe Bravo drew off from Uncaptured in the Turfway stretch for the win in the Spiral. He scored 50 points toward the Kentucky Derby, which many analysts say may be enough to get him in the gate for trainer Kelly Breen and owner Sterling Racing. Bravo kept Black Onyx in the middle of the field of 12 and asked him for speed going into the final turn, where he wore down an inside-running Taken By the Storm and drew off from the late-charging Uncaptured.
Uncaptured netted 20 points for a second place finish; Giant Finish got 10 points for third, and Taken by the Storm finished fourth for 5 points.
The final time for the 1 1/8 miles on Turfway’s Polytrack was 1:51.98.
Black Onyx was bred in Kentucky by Cloverleaf Farms II, Inc. and is the son of Rock Hard Ten and Cape Town mare Kalahari Cat. Prior to his win in the Spiral, his record was limited to maiden special weights and two allowance optional claiming races, and his owners had not paid the nomination fee for the Triple Crown series, a separate qualification from the points system. The $6,000 late nomination fee was due Saturday evening.
“That was the plan, said Breen after the race. “If he won the Spiral, his next start would be the Derby. He’s not nominated now, but he will be, in about 15 minutes.”
For Mark Casse, trainer of runner-up Uncaptured, the Derby points system was integral part of his decision to run in the race. Casse said he would have preferred to take the colt to Turfway’s Rushaway Stakes, where the competition would have been easier. Uncaptured had not started since November 2012, when he won the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.
“It was a small field, plus it was 1 11/16 miles,” said Casse. “[The Spiral] was 9 furlongs, which was harder than he’d ever ran before and he was coming off of a four and a half month layoff. With that said, I would not have sent him if I hadn’t thought he would perform well.”
Casse reported that Uncaptured was feeling good on Sunday morning, and will be aiming for a start in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland’s April meet.
“There’s good and bad with the points system, but I think ultimately for the fans, we’re seeing bigger and better races so I think that’s a good thing.”
Turfway officials say that they did see an increase in the quality of horses shipping into the track for this year’s Spiral Stakes.
"I think it helped us. We've usually had a full or nearly-full field because the purse was enough to pretty much guarantee the winner would get into the Derby,” said racing secretary Rick Leigh. “But we probably got a more even field of better quality horses because there aren't that many opportunities to earn points. We won't really know until next year, when we have a chance to compare fields from year to year under the new system."
The Road to the Kentucky Derby continues its trail in Kentucky on April 13 at Keeneland with the Grade 1 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, which will be worth 100 points to the winner.