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Derby Details 2020 Edition 1

January 09, 2020

“In the Gate”

by Tom Carley


This column begins the 2020 season of our new column: Derby Works 2020.  Tom Carley has been writing these annual columns about maturing 2-year-old thoroughbreds under the header of “Baby Talk”.  Because Tom’s focus is on the events and decision-making processes all along the road for Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown hopefuls, we have re-monikered the tag line to “Derby Works”. These subsequent editions are contributed to by the generosity of a keen and avid follower of the Sport of Kings since his childhood in Kentucky.  Tom enriches this annual January to May journey for all of us here, and we are sure you will enjoy following along each week as much as we do.  So, just for fun:

Notes from Tom Carley:

 It has been two years since we shared time discussing the greatest game of all, horse racing, focusing on the 3-year-olds contending for the sport’s most famous prize, the Kentucky Derby.  For those of you who are new readers, I want to take a moment and explain what this column is all about.

 The column had been called “Baby Talk” because it is devoted to younger horses as they develop into 3-year-olds.  The 3-year-old period for a horse is comparable to a human’s teenage years.  All thoroughbred racehorses share a common birthday of January 1, regardless of when they were born.  Just like when we were growing up; the horses that are born closer to January are more mature than horses born later in the year.  Most horses that you see in the Derby will have been born in March, April or May.  Derby Works will be centered around the Kentucky Derby, focusing in on the preparations for that infamous First Saturday in May.  This column will not only track the individual Derby contenders as they race toward the Derby, but also will feature the issues that these horses face as they mature. 

 This is truly the reader’s column.  Not only will future content be determined by feedback provided by readers, but its purpose is for all readers– regardless of their level of knowledge of the sport of horse racing– to take something away from each edition.  The reader may be a seasoned bettor who spends weekends wagering on his favorite horses.  It may even be a novice, like an inexperienced spouse who’s never seen a horse race looking to be more “in the know” before an upcoming Kentucky Derby party.  Whatever your level of involvement in thoroughbred racing, it is my intention that you be able to take something from each column.

 Derby Works will continue in my tradition of not discussing individual horses for the first few editions. Instead, I shall focus on some background facts regarding the most important race for 3-year-olds: the Kentucky Derby.  While this may be a refresher for most, let’s just start with the basics.

The Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby is the race most people think about when they think about horse racing.  Over 170,000 people go to Louisville each year to sip a Mint Julep, wear a hat and sing My Old Kentucky Home (the traditional drink, fashion statement, and song of the Derby).  The 2020 Kentucky Derby is the 146th consecutive year the race has been run.  It is a horse race for 3-year-olds contested over 1.25 miles.  The “Run for the Roses” happens annually on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.  While it is open to both boys (colts) and girls (fillies), only three females have ever won the race.   There is a female version (the Kentucky Oaks) run the day before (Friday) at a slightly shorter distance.

How do you become eligible to race in the Kentucky Derby?

While winning the Kentucky Derby is a dream of every thoroughbred owner, the field is limited to 20 entrants.  Determining those horses is a very defined and precise process. 

 First of all let’s look at the fees associated with entering.  A horse must be nominated to the Triple Crown which includes the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

 The cost to nominate before January 25, 2020 is $600.00.

That cost increases to $6,000.00 during the second nomination period. The deadline for that second chance is March 30, 2020 for those horses that were not nominated in the early nomination period.

 In addition, a horse must be entered to run in the Kentucky Derby on the Wednesday prior to the event.  The cost to enter is $50,000 with an additional $50,000 to run the race.

 The most important part is “qualifying” to run in the Derby.  In 2012, Churchill Downs made a decision which dramatically changed this process.  Prior to 2012, horses qualified based on their earnings in graded stakes races.  This allowed horses to win earnings in shorter distance races in their 2-year-old season to secure a spot in the Derby.    No horse will run the 1 ¼ mile distance before Derby Day.  Historically, horses that were earning money at races less than a mile have often found themselves unable to perform well in the longer distance at the Kentucky Derby. 

 In 2012, Churchill Downs established a point system for Derby “prep” races.  This system awards points to the top 4 finishers in Derby prep races starting in September of this crop’s 2-year-old year.  In addition, this 2012 system weights the points most heavily to the races that are closest to the Derby.  This rewards the horses that are peaking near the first Saturday in May.  This also rewards horses that have proven they can handle the longer distances. 

 Typically, it takes about 32 points to get into the Kentucky Derby.  The last major prep races (the Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, Bluegrass stakes, Arkansas Derby, Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby) all award 100 points to the winner and 50 to the runner up.  A horse can run first or second in those races and have plenty of points to get into the field.  Trainers must weigh keeping their horses rested by allowing plenty of time off between races against the need to run them often enough to earn enough points to qualify for the Derby.  This causes many horses to face the pressure of having to run well in their last Derby prep to be assured of a spot in the field. 

 The points system will award spots to 18 starters.  As for the other two qualifiers, Churchill Downs made the decision to attempt to make the Kentucky Derby a worldwide event by recruiting horses from around the world to compete.  In doing this, they awarded one spot in the starting gate to the top point earner in races in Asia and one spot to the top point earner in races in Europe.  Last year, for the first time, both foreign qualifiers opted to run in the Derby.

 Since the points system was implemented, the Kentucky Derby favorite had won the Derby each year.  That is until last year, when the longest shot on the board, Country Humor, won the Kentucky Derby via disqualification.   This eliminated a lot of discussion about the new points system all but eliminating the chance for a long-shot winner. 

Derby Works 2020 will provide information– and hopefully some entertainment– as we travel from the dusty stables all the way to Central Avenue in Louisville. There at 7:02 PM on May 2, twenty horses will begin a 10 furlong journey that will leave one horse to win the 2020 Kentucky Derby. That winner will then be forever linked to past Derby winners, such as Secretariat, Barbaro and Smarty Jones.

 Will a long shot win this year? Or, will it be an established favorite who has demonstrated ability and maturity on the Kentucky Derby trail?  Nobody knows and that is what makes it fun to follow the horses as they run toward the “Fastest Two Minutes in Sports”.

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