LITTLE ROCK — Already ensconced as a preferred route to the Triple Crown races, Oaklawn Park’s stakes program for Kentucky Derby hopefuls will be even more attractive once horsemen digest the new formula for qualifying.
No longer do graded earnings matter. In place since 1986, that system could be confusing to casual fans. Whether the race in question was the Grade I Arkansas Derby, the Grade II Louisiana Derby, or the Grade III Sunland Park Derby, $100,000 in earnings was the same 100K.
Beginning in 2013, the 20 Derby starters will be determined by points earned in a variety of races.
The seven most significant 3-year-old races — the Arkansas Derby, Florida Derby, the Blue Grass for example — will be worth 100-40-20-10 points to finishers one through four. Below that will be eight races like the Rebel at Oaklawn, the Tampa Bay Derby, and the Sunland Derby with 50-20-10-5 points at stake. At the bottom of the scale are nine races, including the Southwest at Oaklawn and the El Camino Real Derby in northern California, worth 10-4-2-1.
Maybe the opinion is influenced by fruitlessly chasing Delta Downs Jackpot winner Sabercat via the mutuel windows at Oaklawn Park and Churchill Downs, but devaluing the 2-year-old races is most welcome. Sabercat’s victory in the $1 million race in south Louisiana last fall secured a spot in the Derby field because he banked graded money, but the best he has done at 3 is run third in the Arkansas Derby, a performance worth 20 points under the new system.
Churchill Downs officials believe a horse will have to accumulate 40 points to be certain of a spot in the starting gate on the first Saturday of May 2013. Down the line, officials may revisit the 10-4-2-1 for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but for now it is only of equal value with other 2-year-old races. Sprint races are worth nothing. So, too, turf races. Races strictly for fillies are also worthless, meaning a horseman with an eye on the Kentucky Derby would have to send his filly against the boys long before the Derby.
In addition, the $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne was left off the points list. Whether that is because of an argument over dates between the Churchill Downs-owned Arlington Park and Hawthorne is immaterial. What matters is that the Illinois Derby will be avoided by horsemen trying to get into the Kentucky Derby.
In 2002, Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem only got into the race because he had won the Illinois Derby. If the system had been in place this year, Illinois Derby winner Done Talking’s lone point would have come from a fourth-place finish in a 2-year-old race in New York.
Eighth on the graded money list this year, Arkansas Derby winner Bodemeister would have topped the points list with 120 under the new system. Breeders Cup Juvenile winner Hansen, No. 1 in graded money, would have been fifth in points.
Counting the 2-year-old races, Santa Anita offers races worth a total of 323 points and New York tracks have events with 306 points available. At Oaklawn, 289 points are available even though there is no 2-year-old racing. Eliminate the 2-year-old races and Oaklawn and Santa Anita are at the top of the points list with 289 each. Next comes the New York tracks, the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, and Gulfstream Park in Florida with 272 each.
Head to head, the four races offered at Santa Anita and Oaklawn offer the same points per event, but Oaklawn’s program is more attractive because of the purse money. This year, Santa Anita offered 3-year-old races worth $100,000, $200,000, $300,000, and $750,000. Oaklawn races were the $100,000 Smarty Jones, $250,000 Southwest, $500,000 Rebel, and $1 million Arkansas Derby.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.