Saturday, 18 April 2009

No Broken Fixes, Please!

Despite the fact that Dunkirk has virtually secured his spot in the Derby field due to a number of health- and performance-related defections, concepts for a new Kentucky Derby qualification system are still pitched. The Osterman proposal, which the article linked above pimps, is a particularly ripe and representative example of the "Win-and-You're-In, if-the-race-has-the-highest-grade-it's-enough-to-show, though" - systems flying all around us this time of year.

For the uninitiated, the "playoff" system proposed by Today's Racing Digest writer Tim Osterman basically relies on a list of races (see below) in which a set amount of Derby spots is awarded (26 overall, Osterman hopes for repeat qualifiers and a handful of defections).

The 12 races Osterman listed that he feels should be used to determine the 2009 Kentucky Derby field:

1. March 7. Gotham Stakes (Grade III). The winner is in.
2. March 14. Louisiana Derby (Grade II). First and second are in.
3. March 14. San Felipe Stakes (Grade II). First and second are in.
4. March 14. Tampa Bay Derby (Grade III). The winner is in.
5. March 21. Lane’s End Stakes (Grade II). First and second are in.
6. March 28. Florida Derby (Grade I). First three are in.
7. April 4. Wood Memorial (Grade I). First three are in.
8. April 4. Illinois Derby (Grade II). First and second are in.
9. April 4. Santa Anita Derby (Grade I). First three are in.
10. April 11. Blue Grass Stakes (Grade I). First three are in.
11. April 11. Arkansas Derby (Grade II). First and second are in.
12. April 18. Lexington Stakes (Grade II). First and second are in.

Like all such proposals, a closer look reveals that support for them is motivated by the desire to solve a specific perceived flaw of the current system (in this case, I guess, the possibility of Dunkirk missing out) but it isn’t thought through in the least. In their attempt to rectify one flaw (if you see it as a flaw, which I wouldn’t), proponents of this and the many other qualification race systems are oblivious to the mountains of much worse imperfections such a system creates.

A case in point is the subjective choice of qualification races, usually founded on the fundamentally flawed system created by the American Grades Stakes Committee. In the Osterman system, two spots would go to the Lexington Stakes. Last year’s winner of that race was Behindatthebar (who qualified, then skipped the Derby, then bruised a foot before his scheduled start in the Preakness). Not qualified under the Graded Earnings System (GES) was Samba Rooster, who finished third in the Consolation Derby at LS next time out and didn’t do anything worth noticing afterwards. The year before, Slew’s Tizzy won, qualified, skipped, won the Lone Star Consolation, finished last in the Belmont and went on to a less-than-stellar career. Starbase was the runner-up left out of the Derby. And rightfully so, considering he subsequently failed to hit the board in the Ohio Derby and Arlington Classic. None of these Osterman qualifiers (the only ones in the polytrack era) started in the Derby, so what credentials does this race have to offer two spots, other than its formal status as a Grade II? In 2006, the last time this race was run on the dirt, Showing Up won. He got into the Derby under the GES, finishing 6th. The one who didn’t, but would have under the Osterman system, was Like Now, who went on to prove he didn’t deserve a spot by finishing 7th of 9 in the Preakness before finishing last in his next four starts. Under the current system, this now 180K-to-the-victor race is a de-facto “Win-and-You’re-In”, under the Osterman system it would more often than not waste a spot on a horse that doesn’t belong anywhere near the Derby.

No spots are given to the UAE preps everybody loves to hate, despite the fact that the 9-furlongs-of-conventional-dirt UAE Derby, regularly featuring some of the finest of last year’s South American 3yo crop, will consistently produce more likely Derby candidates than the somewhat anachronistic polytrack trial discussed above. In nine runnings until 2008, the race produced five Derby-eligible winners. One, Blues And Royals in 2005, never started again, leaving Discreet Cat in 2006, Essence of Dubai in 2002 (9th in the Derby, winner of the SuperDerby among other solid but not overwhelming results), Express Tour in 2001 (8th, Jerome winner and 3rd in the Woodward) and first-ever edition winner China Visit (6th, world-class miler). Not the worst race to slap a “Win-and-You’re-In”-tag on if you ask me.

While choice of races is questionable, the real damage is done elsewhere. Most troubling about the proposal is that it shifts the likelihood for a promising contender being skipped, but actually multiplies it. Dunkirk apologists never fail to point to the fact that the horse’s career started late due to health issues. Isn’t it worthy of support, they ask, that the trainer didn’t rush the horse?

In the Osterman system, a much worse case can happen. Given that all qualification races are between early March and mid-April, what happens if a horse has a stellar juvenile career, goes on to impressively win the Southwest and the Rebel, or the San Rafael and the Sham, or the Holy Bull and the Fountain of Youth, but suffers a minor injury or infection at the beginning of March, sidelining him for a few weeks? Or if such a horse starts in the middle of that timeframe (which includes the Florida Derby) and, hampered by a horrible trip or fundamental infraction, finishes fourth in a major prep? Wouldn’t such a horse be more worthy of a spot in the Derby than, say, the runner-up of the Illinois Derby; an illustrious group that over the last five years included the unforgettables Golden Spike, Reporting For Duty (who eventually became a Derby winner, at Zia Park), Mister Triester, Monarch Lane and, last but unfortunately not least, Song of the Sword (the only one of this bunch to actually qualify for the Derby under the GES, finishing 11th; then 9th of 10 in the Preakness).

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