Ky Derby is a priceless asset - how can US racing take better advantage of it?

The 2014 Kentucky Derby. Photo: Jon Durr/Cal Sport Media via AP Images

Everyone closely involved with horse racing has experienced something like this: A new acquaintance or a casual contact, perhaps a fellow airplane passenger or a chatty cabbie, asks, “Have you ever won the Kentucky Derby?”

If you’re mischievously inclined or even if you’re not but at the moment just can’t find within yourself the cheerful tolerance the ensuing conversation threatens to require, or especially if you indeed have won the Derby, you might want to reply, “No, but I won the recent Duncan F. Kenner Stakes.” That should leave the discussion in the starting gate. 

In an effort to start a conversation with somebody in the racing industry, the interrogator has reached for the only thing he knows about the sport, the only brand he can identify, the only event he has seen or can recall or even name. That’s how it is for many people. Maybe some have heard of Bob Baffert or D. Wayne Lukas or, if they’re a certain age, Bill Shoemaker. More than a few have heard of Secretariat — didn’t they make a movie about him? But the Kentucky Derby everyone knows. It offers everybody in America an infrangible and firm hold, a “bucket” in climbers’ jargon, that provides support for — what? — ascension, conversation, communion, understanding.

For that reason, the Kentucky Derby is more important to horse racing than any other event to any other sport. The Derby’s popularity, in fact, has become an overwhelmingly valuable asset largely because it brings together everybody, from the most serious to the most casual of fans, in a momentary celebration of horses and racing. Nothing else achieves so much on behalf of the sport. But popularity has a price, and in this case the sport pays in various ways — with, for example, the heightened attrition among horses pursuing Derby glory and with the 3-year-olds obscuring every other division. While overwhelmingly positive, the Derby’s popularity also has become overshadowing.

And so how important is the Derby? Well, for 51 weeks of the year, horse racing might be relegated to the back page, the agate, the footnote, the small hours, and the afterthought. But then it’s Derby time. And suddenly horse racing has its best, and for many its only, opportunity to intrude on the general awareness. That might involve somebody throwing a Derby party, or pulling a name from a hat or taking the family to the racetrack; it could mean the sport making the 6 o’clock news, or leading off ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” or landing on the front page of the newspaper. However it becomes apparent, you’ll certainly see it, hear it, and feel it because the intrusion gathers strength through the week until on Saturday afternoon it’s inexorable.

Trainer Mark Casse, who has won seven Sovereign Awards as Canada’s outstanding trainer and who will saddle Danzig Moon in the upcoming Kentucky Derby, recalled first realizing the race’s unique place in the culture. A native of Indiana, Casse grew up with the Kentucky Derby; as a kid on a horse farm he sometimes fantasized, as everyone close to racing would, about winning the most famous of races. But he didn’t fully understand, he explained, the Derby’s importance until 2006, when he saddled Seaside Retreat for the roseate run.

Seaside Retreat was a rank outsider, but the media swarmed over Casse like ants over an abandoned picnic — television interviews, newspaper stories, numerous profiles of both horse and trainer. It was more than a little surprising, Casse recalled. Seaside Retreat finished 10th in the Derby at 52-1.

Several months later, Casse’s close friend Tom Albertrani, whose stable occupied a neighboring barn, was preparing Bernardini for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Bernardini had won six consecutive races, including the Preakness, and he was about to run in the country’s richest race for the sport’s highest honor, Horse of the Year. And yet the attention focused on Albertrani and Bernardini hardly compared to the excitement that had surrounded Casse and Seaside Retreat months earlier. The contrast, Casse said, was stunning. Even more, it was telling, because it revealed just how bright the Kentucky Derby spotlight can be. It confers significance on everything it touches. 

And for the sport itself, no event is comparable. Nothing inspires so many dreams or engenders so many hopes. Nothing is more likely to encourage a buyer to make one more bid at a sale than the suspicion that this little yearling in the ring just might be a Derby horse. 

The Kentucky Derby is to racing what Wallace Stevens’ jar is to the wilderness in Tennessee. The Derby imposes form and order and purpose on everything around it, from the run-up that precedes it to the Triple Crown races that follow. For half the season, horse racing is so preoccupied with the Kentucky Derby that the 3-year-olds become the sport’s freshly anointed stars. It might be an artificial, unwarranted distinction, but it’s real, and it’s useful. Horse racing, everybody agrees, needs stars. 

But here’s the other side of that popularity: As the sport’s stars, the 3-year-olds receive a disproportionate share of the purse money, too.

Last year, approximately 56,000 horses raced in North America. Of those, 26 percent, were 3-year-olds, and 59 percent were older horses, according to Equibase. The sport, as you’d expect, is even more dependent on older horses early in the year, before the juveniles begin to appear in large numbers. So far this year, more than 30,000 horses have raced in North America, with roughly 8,000 of them being 3-year-olds and roughly 21,000 older horses. These figures change daily, and paint a lopsided picture when considered in terms of available prize money.

For the first half of 2015, the 3-year-old males -- which is to say horses that might be aimed at the Triple Crown -- have an opportunity to run in eight races in the U.S. worth at least $1 million, nine including the Metropolitan Handicap, which, of course, is also open to older horses. Sophomores have so many lucrative opportunities, trainers point out, that the best can avoid each other until the Triple Crown begins, so many rich races that each one seems to have only a few legitimate contenders. The older males, on the other hand, have the opportunity to race in only four million-dollar races in the first six months of this year: the Metropolitan and the Manhattan, both run on June 6 at Belmont Park, the Santa Anita Handicap, and the Charles Town Classic. 

The bigger picture is no less distorted. For the first six months of the year, purses in graded stakes for 3-year-old males average nearly $474,000, while the purses in graded stakes for older males average approximately $281,000. In other words, although there are 62 percent fewer 3-year-olds than older horses racing during this period, their typical graded-stakes purse is 68 percent higher. 

“It’s all about the racetracks romancing the fans up to the Triple Crown,” said Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, who has saddled six Kentucky Derby starters over the years. The attention and money showered upon the 3-year-olds could be, “a little misplaced,” he said, adding, “The older horses need to have attention, too. The game needs them to stay around.”

That’s one of the problems resulting from the distortion. With so much of the money and attention lavished on 3-year-olds, the sport quite effectively creates stars -- a new group every season -- but then fails to provide much incentive for them to remain on the stage. It’s essentially unhealthy. And, of course, the abundant purses for 3-year-olds, along with Derby fever, encourage another potential health problem for racing and its competitors. 

“I think the sport tears up a lot of horses getting to the Triple Crown,” said Bill Mott, a Hall of Fame trainer who has saddled seven Derby starters -- and had his promising 2015 contender Dubai Sky sidelined by an injury in early April. “There’s so much money, and the Derby is so popular that the attrition rate gets very high in that division.” Even the prep races leading up to the Triple Crown, Mott pointed out, have become so lucrative that they’re almost irresistible for many owners. 

Some have suggested that most of today’s horsemen generally take a more prudent approach and don’t push young horses as hard as perhaps they once did. And that, it’s true, seems to be the case, even if the efficacy of the approach remains debatable. (It might be useful here to recall that in 1941, Whirlaway finished second in both the Blue Grass and the Derby Trial within 10 days of winning the Kentucky Derby.) On the other hand, at least 20 horses have been entered in the Kentucky Derby each of the last 10 years, and once again an overflow field awaits defections for the upcoming renewal.

That probably won’t change. Derby fever takes an earlier hold and gets more intense, it seems, each year. But this popularity is a priceless asset. The challenge for the sport is how to take better advantage of such popularity. One way to do that is by more equitably distributing purse money and by allowing other divisions to benefit from the 3-year-olds’ star power. 

In 2013, Churchill Downs went to a points system, which replaced graded stakes earnings in determining the field of 20 for the Kentucky Derby. Despite some political flaws, the points system represented an improvement because it freed racetracks to distribute purse money more equitably. The new system should have put an end to the arms race. If 170 qualifying points were still available, would it matter greatly and would the field be any stronger if the purse were $750,000 rather than $1 million for a major preparatory race leading up to the Derby? Probably not. Purse money, trainers point out, could be better distributed if more were available to older horses. The 3-year-olds have the spotlight, but they don’t necessarily have to have the bankroll, too. 

And wouldn’t it clear the sinuses if the chatty cabbie, quick as a reflex, replied, “Ya mean the $400,000 Duncan F. Kenner? Oh, man, dat was some race.”

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