Derby selection criteria needs updating

Churchill Downs updated its historic racetrack. Now it needs to tweak how horses get into the run for the roses.

Updated: May 13, 2005, 12:52 PM ET
By Randy Moss | Special to ESPN.com

In the temporary lull between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness (and at the risk of being labeled a Derby nerd), let me bring up these hypothetical but timely questions:

What if the Delta Jackpot and its $1 million purse is granted Grade 3 status? What if the WinStar Derby becomes a Grade 3 and its purse is boosted to $1 million? And what if either Delta Downs or Sunland Park then reaches into its deep slot-machine pockets to increase those purses to, say, $1.5 million?

In the current scheme of graded-stakes-earnings qualification to the Kentucky Derby, those races would count twice as much as the Santa Anita Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes. Is this what the founding fathers had in mind?

That is one good reason why Churchill Downs needs to think proactively and tweak the way Kentucky Derby starters are chosen, in the event more than 20 horses are entered. Actually, one could also cite the 2003 exclusion of Eddington and Rock Hard Ten as evidence that the 17-year-old system of choosing Derby runners needs a tuneup.

For a possible example of how the Kentucky Derby selection criteria could be changed, examine another longtime American sports classic held at a venue steeped in tradition -- the Masters.

Augusta National lists 17 qualifications for a Masters invitation. Several of them that involve lifetime achievement (past Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA winners, for example) obviously are unworthy of comparision, because Kentucky Derby horses are 3-year-olds only once.

But the Masters also gives automatic invitations to the first eight players in the previous U.S. Open and the first four in the British Open and PGA, and those qualifiers are given precedence over the 40 leaders on the current PGA Tour money-won list, and the 50 leaders in the World Golf rankings.

Churchill Downs could easily apply that basic theory to the Kentucky Derby criteria, with more accurate results than the status quo that this year gave the $1 million Arkansas Derby and Florida Derby 25% more importance than the $750,000 Blue Grass, Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial.

Here is an example of how such a revamped system could work:

Give an automatic berth to the first three finishers of the Blue Grass, Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial and Florida Derby -- which also happen to be the only Grade 1 prep races for the Triple Crown.

Those horses could receive the first priority, and the next tier of qualifiers could then include the first two finishers of selected two-turn Grade 2 races such as the Arkansas Derby, Fountain of Youth, San Felipe, Gotham, Louisiana Derby, Lanes End, Illinois Derby and Lexington Stakes. The Santa Catalina and San Rafael -- also Grade 2s -- are not included on this list to avoid giving West Coast-based 3-year-olds an unfair advantage.

The final tier might include only the winners of other two-turn graded preps such as the Holy Bull, Santa Catalina, San Rafael, Rebel, Risen Star, El Camino Real, Golden Gate Derby, Tampa Bay Derby and UAE Derby.

Horses within each of the three tiers could be rated in order of preference by overall graded earnings.

Plus, an automatic first-tier invitation could also be given to the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, or possibly the winner of the Eclipse Award as 2-year-old champion.

This would be both simple and effective, and two years ago, such a system would have resulted in Eddington and Rock Hard Ten getting into the Kentucky Derby as first-tier qualifiers based on their third-place finishes in the Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby, respectively. And horses that win comparably minor Grade 3 races with potentially huge purses -- or finish second in a $2 million race such as the UAE Derby -- would not receive preference over more qualified horses that took traditional paths to Louisville.

The current way of picking Kentucky Derby starters is not horribly flawed, and has actually held up reasonably well with a few exceptions.

But if Churchill Downs can spend $121 million to upgrade its historic grandstand, why not spend the cost of a few hundred e-mail exchanges to upgrade the Kentucky Derby conditions and protect the integrity of the world's greatest race for years to come?

Randy Moss

Horse Racing
Before joining ESPN in 1999 as the network's chief horse-racing analyst, Randy Moss covered the sport for more than two decades for the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram and the Arkansas Democrat.