For the first time in the 139 years of the Kentucky Derby, a points system akin to golf's FedEx Cup and NASCAR's Sprint Cup will be used to set the field for horse racing's most prestigious event.
The Louisville Journal-Courier reports that Churchill Downs will set the 20-horse field for the 2013 race with a "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series. Thirty-six races, each carrying pre-set point totals, will be used to rank the Derby candidates.
Early races will feature a 10-4-2-1 scale for top finishers. The next wave increases the totals to 50-20-10-5. The Kentucky Derby Championship Season, which will include major stakes races like the Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial and U.A.E. Derby, doubles that total.
"People understand the Derby is the Super Bowl," but they don't understand what the league structure is and what the series is to get there," track president T. Kevin Flanery said. "We think this is a very easily understandable series and season that the fan can follow."
If you didn't know how horses got into the Derby before, you're not alone. A Churchill Downs study found that 83 percent of sports fans were unaware of how horses were selected for the Derby (and that sounds low). Graded-stakes earnings have been the measure sine 1986. Those could have included sprints and races on varied surfaces. The new system focuses on prep races that are close in distance and feel to the Derby.
The eventual Derby fields won't be discernibly different to casual horse racing fans, like the ones who drive up numbers for the three Triple Crown races. A study commissioned Churchill Downs found that the top 15 horses in the field would stay the same with the new system. Only two to three slots filled by "bubble horses" would swap, though it's noted that trainers may have raced their horses differently with the new rankings in place.
Buried in the 30th paragraph of Rees' article is another key reason for the change: "[President of NBC Sports programming Jon] Miller said he hoped many of the prep races would be shown on NBC Sports Network."
The system is fine in its own right, but change for the sake of change is meaningless unless there's a catch. There's your catch. The pre-Derby drama is great for fans. But this is just as much about getting races on a cable network with 75 million homes and in desperate need of live events.