We’re nearing the end of January and the Kentucky Derby prep season is about to heat up. There are just a few races left in the early prep series awarding horses a maximum of 10 qualification points for the race. Approximately one month from now the qualification race series will with the Risen Star Stakes. These races will award a maximum of 50 qualification points.
On balance, the revised qualification system is working as intended. In the past it was highly arbitrary and based on ‘graded stakes winnings’. Unfortunately, there are any number of ways to manipulate this process and too many ‘graded stakes races’ that are qualitatively substandard. Bottom line–it was allowing too many horses to get in that simply shouldn’t have qualified. The revised qualification process is more regimented. Horses earn qualification points in specified races. The number of possible points increases with the quality of the race. The early races award a maximum of 10 points, the second series awards a maximum of 50 points with the major prep races awarding a maximum 100 points and essentially guaranteeing entry into the race. A proportionately lower number of points are awarded for the second, third and fourth place finishers in each race. Since a second place finish in the major prep races like the Santa Anita Derby or Blue Grass Stakes awards almost as many points (40) as a win in an earlier prep race (50) there’s a substantial reward for a strong performance in a big event. There’s also a ‘wild card’ points race early in the Churchill Downs spring meet that awards a maximum of 10 points for any last minute ‘on the bubble’ horses.
Clearly, there are a lot of strategies that can be employed to get in. Some horses connections choose a traditional prep route taking several races prior to the Kentucky Derby. Others–usually highly regarded contenders–take an approach of essentially putting ‘all of their eggs in one basket’ and hoping to win one of the big prep races worth 100 points maximum. The result has been Kentucky Derby fields with more qualitative depth and fewer horses that are completely outclassed. Occasionally a clearly qualified horse will miss the ‘cut’ (eg: Bayern last year) but even these cases have less to do with the qualifying system and more to do with the race schedule strategy used to get him in the race.