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The Kentucky Derby & The Breeders' Cup Juvenile: Worlds Apart

There are plenty of owners and trainers unhappy with the new Kentucky Derby qualifying system, specifically with regards to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. But, based on history, their concerns are misplaced.

Union Rags and Hansen in the 2011 Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs.
Union Rags and Hansen in the 2011 Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs.
Matthew Stockman

The Louisville Courier-Journal ran a story on Friday about trainers and owners reactions to the new Kentucky Derby qualification system. You can read the Courier-Journal article via the above link and I highly recommend clicking on the link right now and then returning to his post once you're done.

Okay, all finished? Excellent.

The article begins with reality that the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, a $2 million race, is no longer guaranteed a spot in the Kentucky Derby the following spring. The replacement of graded stakes earnings with a point system from a much smaller pool of races, pretty much eliminates the ability of a colt to secure a Derby spot simply based on their form as a juvenile. Not surprisingly, some within the industry feel that's a fundamental flaw in the system.

Trainer Ken McPeek: "The winner of the Breeders' Cup should be an automatic."

Ed Glasscock, a co-owner of Shanghai Bobby:

"Glasscock said he often tells the top players at Churchill that, "If Shanghai Bobby cannot live up to our expectations during the 3-year-old spring and season, then maybe he doesn't deserve to be in the Derby.

"I say that to be nice. But do I really feel that way? No. He deserves to be in the Derby ... whether he wins another race or not."

While I can understand the sentiments of both men -- if I trained or owned a horse that won the Juvenile, I'd certainly want my horse provided a one-way ticket to the Derby -- the straight up facts are clear: the Breeders' Cup Juvenile is NOT a key race in determining the best horses for the Kentucky Derby.

You'd be hard pressed to find someone that loves the Breeders' Cup more than I; it's my favorite betting weekend of the year and, as simply a fan, I love the high quality fields in almost every single race during the event. The Breeders' Cup is a fantastic event and, for the most part, the winning horses beat the best horses you'll find anywhere in racing (at least on dirt).

Similarly, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile is a fun race in terms of "hope" and "promise" and the belief that maybe we are witnessing the beginning of the career of a horse destined to achieve great things throughout their career. But in reality, the Juvenile (and all the other juvenile races) is most likely an exercise in watching a precocious colt that will produce little in the way to top level success as he ages.

We all know the legend (or should I write: the history) of the Juvenile: only one horse has won the Juvenile and then returned to win the Kentucky Derby the following spring - Street Sense in 2007. Beyond those numbers, however, is an even more telling situation. Street Sense, Timber Country and Chief's Crown are the only Juvenile winners to finish in the top three in the Derby (both Timber Country and Chief's Crown finished 3rd during their Derby runs), and 13 of the 28 Juvenile winners never so much as started in the Derby.

Want more depressing numbers? Since 2000, seven Juvenile winners failed to so much as find their way into the starting gate at Churchill Downs. Yep, you read that correctly - of the 13 horses to win the Juvenile and then not run in the Derby the following spring, over half occurred in the 21st century. The recent non-Derby running Juvenile winners are:

2010 - Uncle Mo
2009 - Vale of York
2008 - Midshipman
2007 - War Pass
2005 - Stevie Wonderboy
2002 - Vindication
2000 - Macho Uno

Of the Juvenile winners that did make the Derby starting gate, only Street Sense ran what could be called a "good" race.

2011 - Hansen (9th)
2006 - Street Sense (1st)
2004 - Wilko (6th)
2003 - Action this Day (6th)
2001 - Johannesburg (8th)

What's the point of all this? Well, it's merely to point out something we already know and have already discussed in the past - the Breeders' Cup Juvenile is a poor predictor of future racing success, and not just in terms of the Derby. Let's look at another interesting factoid relating to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (and all other juvenile races at the Breeders' Cup):

A Juvenile, Juvenile Turf, Juvenile Fillies, Juvenile Fillies Turf and Juvenile Sprint winner has never returned to win a Breeders' Cup race in subsequent years. Never. Zip. Zilch. We're talking an 0-for-23 record. The streak looked primed to fall in 2012 given the strong chances of former Juvenile Fillies' winners Awesome Feather and My Miss Aurelia in the Distaff Ladies' Classic. But at the end of the day the juvenile shutout remained intact.

So, to recap, let's take a quick look at some stats of Breeders' Cup Juvenile winners both in the Kentucky Derby and winners of all juvenile races in later Breeders' Cups. We'll start with the Juvenile/Derby data:

Year Winner Derby Finish
2012 Shanghai Bobby TBD
2011 Hansen 9th
2010 Uncle Mo DNS
2009 Vale of York DNS
2008 Midshipman DNS
2007 War Pass DNS
2006 Street Sense 1st
2005 Stevie Wonderboy DNS
2004 Wilko 6th
2003 Action This Day 6th
2002 Vindication DNS
2001 Johannesburg 8th
2000 Macho Uno DNS
1999 Anees 13th
1998 Answer Lively 10th
1997 Favorite Trick 8th
1996 Boston Harbor DNS
1995 Unbridled's Song 5th
1994 Timber Country 3rd
1993 Brocco 4th
1992 Gilded Time DNS
1991 Arazi 8th
1990 Fly So Free 5th
1989 Rhythm DNS
1988 Is It True DNS
1987 Success Express DNS
1986 Capote 15th
1985 Tasso DNS
1984 Chief's Crown 3rd

And now a look at all juvenile winners in later Breeders' Cup starts:

Horse Juvenile Win Later BC Starts
Chief's Crown 1984 Juvenile 1985 Classic (4th)
Outstandingly 1984 Juvenile Fillies 1986 Distaff (3rd)
Twilight Ridge 1985 Juvenile Fillies 1986 Distaff (6th)
Epitome 1987 Juvenile Fillies 1988 Distaff (7th)
Open Mind 1988 Juvenile Fillies 1989 Distaff (3rd)
Rhythm 1989 Juvenile 1990 Classic (8th)
Go For Wand 1989 Juvenile Fillies 1990 Distaff (DNF)
Fly So Free 1990 Juvenile 1991 Classic (4th); 1993 Sprint (9th)
Meadow Star 1990 Juvenile Fillies 1992 Distaff (7th)
Arazi 1991 Juvenile 1992 Mile (11th)
Gilded Time 1992 Juvenile 1993 Sprint (3rd)
My Flag 1995 Juvenile Fillies 1996 Distaff (4th)
Favorite Trick 1997 Juvenile 1988 Mile (8th)
Silverbulletday 1998 Juvenile Fillies 1999 Distaff (6th)
Macho Uno 2000 Juvenile 2001 Classic (4th); 2002 Classic (5th)
Storm Flag Flying 2002 Juvenile Fillies 2004 Distaff (2nd)
Street Sense 2006 Juvenile 2007 Classic (4th)
Indian Blessing 2007 Juvenile Filllies 2008 Filly&Mare Sprint (2nd)
Midshipman 2008 Juvenile 2009 Dirt Mile (3rd)
Maram 2008 Juvenile Fillies Turf 2009 Filly&Mare Turf (6th)
Uncle Mo 2010 Juvenile 2011 Classic (10th)
Awesome Feather 2010 Juvenile Fillies 2012 Distaff (6th)
My Miss Aurelia 2011 Juvenile Fillies 2012 Distaff (2nd)

Okay, so those are the ugly numbers; the Juvenile has little to no bearing on the Kentucky Derby and juvenile winners of either sex have never even tasted a Breeders' Cup win in later years.

Given this data it's hard to find fault with the decision of Churchill Downs to essentially nuke the Juvenile as an automatic qualifying race to the Kentucky Derby. Gone are the days where the $1.1 million winner's share of the $2 million purse made it possible for the Juvenile winner to run in the Derby without a single bit of success as a three-year-old colt. In its place is a new emphasis that (in theory) has returned to the idea that a spot in the starting gate should be reserved for the best horses in May, not the best horses in November.

In the Courier-Journal's article, trainer D. Wayne Lukas lamented the structure of the points system, saying:

"If you wait for one of those 100-point races, saying that will pretty much get you in, what if you stumble at the start or get wiped out? It forces us as trainers to run them more often. Every one of us has to look at another race that we probably wouldn't have looked at before."

Honestly, the situation described by Mr. Lukas isn't much different than in prior years except for the fact that the races are pre-determined. The idea that you can't just rely on one big race to get you in isn't any different than relying on a single race with a $1 million purse to get you in is the same as it was the past. If you waited on the Blue Grass or the Wood to earn the graded dollars to find your way into the Top 20, you risked being left behind.

Additionally, the idea that the new system is forcing trainers to run their horses more often seems a little out of place. First, a trainer is never "forced" to run a horse -- if the horse isn't ready to race, then it shouldn't race. It's that simple. The Derby, as great of a race as it is, isn't the only race in the country. Second, perhaps our Derby runners need to have more races in them ‘cause it's not like lightly raced horses are holding up better physically to the demands of prepping for the Derby. In fact, look at one of Lukas' own Derby trainees from last year: Optimizer.

Optimizer ran a ton during his three year old campaign, especially in the spring. The colt ran five times as a juvenile (breaking his maiden in his first start on the lawn), and then four more times prior to the Derby, as well as in all three Triple Crown races. By the time the Belmont Stakes had ended, Optimizer had run 12 races in his career. And why was Optimizer run so much during his juvenile and pre-Derby months? While I can only guess the intentions of Mr. Lukas, it would seem pretty clear that he was trying to pick up enough earnings to make it into the Derby (cause he sure wasn't winning races along the way).

As a side note, check out Optimizer's races following his maiden win:

9/1/11 - G2 With Anticipation (2nd)
11/5/11 - G1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile (8th)
11/26/11 - G2 Kentucky Jockey Club (4th)
1/16/12 - Smarty Jones (6th)
2/25/12 - G2 Risen Star (9th)
3/17/12 - G2 Rebel Stakes (2nd)
4/14/12 - G1 Arkansas Derby (9th)

That Arkansas Derby race kicked off a four race stretch where Optimizer finished 20 ½, 12, 15 ½ and 30 ¾ lengths behind the winners.

Under the new system, Optimizer would be pretty borderline to make the Derby as he'd pick up 20 points for finishing second in the Rebel and one more point for finishing fourth in the Kentucky Jockey Club. The major difference between last year and this year is that he couldn't win his way in through the Breeders' Cup. Otherwise, it's a grind for a horse that isn't winning races during his three year old season.

In my eyes, the new Kentucky Derby points system accomplished three distinct goals:

  1. It eliminates turf and sprint races from qualifying status (with the exception of the absurd inclusion of the Royal Lodge from England which is just... odd).

    While perhaps we could argue for a few route races on the lawn, I'm not sure it's that big of a deal to eliminate those races from consideration. Ditto for the elimination of sprint races -- if a horse can't run well enough in two-turn races during his three year old campaign he has no business running in the Derby. But that's just my personal preference.

  2. It cuts down on the "any graded race will suffice" philosophy in the past, eliminating a cherry picking of easy races in far flung corners of the country that are able to prop up purses to $800,000 or $1 million through slots or other additional gaming. And while I think we can all agree that there are some races that deserve to be included but were left out (like the Illinois Derby), the reduction from 186 graded stakes races to 36 "qualifying races" (some graded, some ungraded) makes sense on a lot of levels.

  3. The emphasis is moved from "graded earnings at any time" to a progression of success from the juvenile year to the final preps in April. Sure, the changes eliminate the Juvenile winner from automatic qualification status, but is that really going to hurt the quality of the Derby field in the future? The winner of the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot also loses an "automatic" qualifying spot but is that going to really impact the Derby? Time will tell but, based on what we know about Juvenile winners/Derby starters over the last 30 years, it's highly unlikely a deserving, quality colt that's proven himself in the spring preps will find himself on the sideline on the first Saturday in May.

The Kentucky Derby qualifying changes are best summed up by a quote in the Courier-Journal story from Darren Rogers, the senior director of publicity at Churchill Downs who was heavily involved in developing the new process:

"The Kentucky Derby is the Holy Grail for our sport ... it should not be easy to get into the race."

Well put, Mr. Rogers.