LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs simplified the path leading to the Kentucky Derby on Thursday, announcing a new points system pegged to three dozen races that will set the field for the country’s most famous thoroughbred race.
The track scrapped a more complicated system in place since 1986 based on graded stakes earnings that determined which horses reached the Derby starting gate. The discarded system was tied to 185 stakes races worldwide that confounded many casual fans, track officials said. The Derby is limited to 20 horses.
“Our goal is to create a compelling story ... that all culminates on the first Saturday in May,” track President Kevin Flanery said. “It’s easy to understand for the horsemen, for the hardcore fan and for the casual fan.”
The points system will set the fields for the 2013 Derby and Kentucky Oaks, a race for 3-year-old fillies run the day before the Derby at Churchill. The Oaks field of up to 14 starters will be based on points earned from 35 designated races.
Derby hopefuls can start accumulating points as 2-year-olds, but the greatest number of points will be awarded for the traditional Derby prep races in the weeks leading up to the Run for the Roses.
Those races include the Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass Stakes.
“We have really ... respected the traditions and the history of racing in the United States and the path to the Kentucky Derby,” said Flanery, who discussed the change following the annual shareholders meetings for the track’s parent, Churchill Downs Inc.
The top four finishers in the 36 races will receive points on a sliding scale. Victories in those key Derby prep races will be good for 100 points, compared with 10 points for wins in 19 races typically run late in the 2-year-old and early 3-year-old seasons.
Another eight races during the 3-year-old campaign are good for 50 points per victory. Those races include the Risen Star, Fountain of Youth, Gotham, Tampa Bay Derby, San Felipe, Rebel, Spiral and Sunland Derby.
All the designated races cover at least one mile, and all are run on dirt or synthetic surfaces with one exception — England’s Royal Lodge, which is run at one mile on the turf at Newmarket. The Derby is a 1 ¼-mile race.
Churchill Downs is calling the new points system the “Road to the Kentucky Derby.” The goal is to spur more fan interest leading up to the Derby, Churchill officials said.
“We’re implementing a more fan-friendly, cohesive and simplified system that should create compelling drama and appeal to a wider customer base,” Churchill Downs Inc. Chairman and CEO Bob Evans said in a statement.
This year’s Derby, the 138th rendition, drew a record crowd of 165,307. All-sources handle for the 13 Derby Day races at Churchill totaled a record $187 million. This year’s Oaks drew its second-largest crowd of 112,552.
Churchill said it will review which races are tied to the Derby entry points system each year. Flanery said he could foresee adjustments being made and acknowledged the series could easily be tied to as many as 40 races.
The top 20 point earners will earn spots in the Derby if more than 20 horses enter the race. At least 20 horses have entered the Derby every year since 2004 and in 12 of the past 14 years. Up to 24 horses may enter the race and four horses can be listed as “also eligible” and would be ranked in order, the track said. They could join the field if any horses scratched leading up to the race.
The new system will allow fillies to earn their way into the Derby, Flanery said, but they’ll have to compete with the boys in the lead-up races. He noted that the Derby’s three female winners — Regret, Genuine Risk and Winning Colors — all ran against the boys before the Derby.
Any points earned by a filly in pursuit of a Derby start could be credited to her point total for a berth in the Oaks, track officials said.
Long-shots will still be part of the Derby as well with the new points system, Flanery predicted.
If two or more horses have the same number of points, the tiebreaker to get into the Derby or Oaks would be based on earnings in non-restricted stakes races, whether graded or not, the track said.
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