One change Derby group gets right

We are 113 days from the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. This will be the first of many columns focused on, quite frankly, the only race that matters to the mainstream media and the nonracing public.

The Derby has allowed Churchill Downs Inc. to be a 1,000-pound gorilla on anything in horse racing. I don’t deny it its unalienable rights to do so. CDI is a for-profit corporation with shareholders to report to.

When the corporation sold Hollywood Park to land developers in 2005, it started the clock ticking toward extinction. Its shareholders did well from the sale. The California horse industry did not.

When CDI excluded the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne from the Derby points system, it clearly was not in the best interests of the sport. In fact, it came off as petty and downright spiteful.

I credit the folks at Hawthorne who dusted themselves off the mat and evolved to become a key prep race for the Preakness instead.

As for the Derby point system replacing graded earnings in determining the 20-horse field, I was skeptical at first. Now, I am a convert.

It has changed the way horsemen prepare their top 2-year-olds with an emphasis on patience. The reason for this is the lion’s share of points is awarded from Feb. 22 on. That’s when the select Derby preps start awarding 50 points to the winners. It increases to 100 points on March 29.

It has made 2-year-old stakes negligible, with a measly 10 points to the winners. For example, there is nearly no advantage to winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile except for the rich purse.

The biggest positive to me is horsemen can focus on physical development and mental maturity. The idea being if they do their job well, they will have a polished 3-year-old colt by late February. Then any sort of 1-2-3 finish in the final series will get them a berth into the Kentucky Derby.

Let’s take a look at the Sham Stakes, to be run Saturday at Santa Anita Park. The two most interesting colts to me have just won their maiden debut — Top Fortitude and Midnight Hawk.

In past years, they would be considered behind schedule. Not so anymore.

Their connections are using the Sham as if it were a first-level allowance race. The 10 points to the winner is practically meaningless. However, the education they will receive on Saturday is priceless.

If one were a fly on the wall of trainers Bob Baffert or Kory Owens, I suspect they want to see their colt move forward with the goal being to prepare them for the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby later in the meet.

The Derby Trail historically has been a meat grinder of young talent. Too many colts were rushed at age 2 to win graded stakes to move up in the Derby earnings standings.

If the point system, with its emphasis on prep races the nine weeks leading up to the Derby, slows the injury toll on young horses, I’m all for it.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick.

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