This is the first year of a new system for determining the field for the Kentucky Derby. Unlike previous years when earnings from graded stakes decided the 20-horse field for the Run for the Roses, Churchill Downs has instituted a points system for that purpose.
Not all graded stakes for 3-year-olds are included in the system, most notably the Illinois Derby, but most have, with a progressive tier developed with increased points available as we get closer to the Kentucky Derby.
This week's two stakes, the Fountain of Youth and Risen Star Stakes, are the first of the second group of races with each winner picking up 50 points. What we're seeing is an increase in the number of horses entered over what was expected.
That conclusion was expressed by trainer Todd Pletcher this week during a national teleconference.
"I think there's a number of effects from the point system and one of which I think we probably are seeing a little bit this weekend where you see some horses that perhaps would've maybe run in another one-turn race like the Swale are going ahead and jumping out into the Fountain of Youth or the Risen Star," noted Pletcher. "And so we're possibly seeing a change in the pace scenarios in some of these races where beforehand they might have rolled the dice and with the graded earnings been able to get into the Kentucky Derby without really having any two-turn experience. So I think that's one, one immediate effect we're seeing."
Some trainers may not like this effect from the new procedure, but the fans have to be excited to see so many horses running and some of the top Derby contenders going postward.
"The most significant difference is what you pointed out," Pletcher said to a question. "I mean, some of these horses like Violence and Shanghai Bobby who won significant races as 2-year-olds would already be secured a position in the starting gate ... based on graded earnings. And in this case, while they're still towards the top of the points leaderboard, they're still far away from securing a position. So, I don't know that their prep schedules have changed much; what's so critical is that they run well and I think in their cases, they're only going to have two Triple Crown prep races, so obviously we need them to perform well in those races."
That's the most obvious difference between the old way and the new one.
Shanghai Bobby won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile along with two earlier graded stakes for 2-year-olds. However, only the Juvenile garnered points for the colt.
Same for Violence, who won the CashCall Futurity in December. Both Pletcher trainees have plenty of earnings that in the past would have guaranteed Derby entry.
"If Verrazano or one of these horses that's later developing, Verrazano or Palace Malice, were to come along and win the Risen Star and the Tampa Derby or ... their follow-up races, they were still going to have plenty of graded earnings to get in," Pletcher said, "so I don't know that part of it has really changed. We definitely see the change in some of the pace scenarios and could see a major change in the pace scenario for the Derby itself, but that remains to be seen.
"So I think like everyone else, we're seeing how it's going to affect the Derby itself, but it's interesting if nothing else."
Already with 14 horses starting in the Risen Star and 11 going in the Fountain of Youth on Saturday, there has been a beneficial effect on the trail to the Kentucky Derby.
More horses running in stakes races can only help the sport by adding interest overall.