Thoroughbred racing has long had the challenge of explaining many of its rules of racing. The recent change in the fee structure for the Kentucky Derby supplemental nominations is another positive step forward in simplifying the whole system; not just for horse owners but also for fans to understand. Most of the language for who qualifies, who gets preference and who owes what monies is often only understood by racing officials and industry veterans, or its details are buried within the legal minutia in the nomination forms.
In the most basic explanation, the Kentucky Derby is a stake race. A stake race means that the owner of the horse must pay a fee to run in the race. The owners then have a “stake” in the pot of money they compete for to win. Under the long tail theory of economics, more people putting monies into the pot through nomination fees results in a higher purse. Further, owners that pre-qualify their horses early pay a lower fee to nominate ($600 by January 25, 2014) than those who wait to nominate later ($6,000 by March 22, 2014). For all those wanting to run after March 22nd, the price to run goes up again to the $200,000 fee.
The key difference now in the new policy is that no matter when an owner decides to put his money in, that horse is no longer placed at the back of the line behind earlier registrars. If that horse is one of the top 20 point earners then that horse will earn a spot to break from the gate. The incentive to nominate early is paying less money and the “penalty” of waiting is paying more money.
While I believe that soliciting nominations for the Kentucky Derby, with its historic allure and a now $2 million purse, is a bit of an oxymoron as anyone who has a horse that is good enough will want to run their horse in the race. That said, the nominations process is important for helping to ensure the quality of the race is maintained in part by its purse structure, but also for some of the administration and facility resources needed to put on the show for on-site and TV fans.
Last year, Churchill Downs also implemented the new point system. Points were assigned to major prep races and awarded to horses based on their finishes with the hopes of simplifying a casual fans’ understanding of who the major contenders would be prior to the first Saturday in May. In my opinion, the point system was “change for change sake” as I always have to get out the matrix to cross reference the point valuation assigned to each race and which race is included or not included in the Series. I thought the previous system was easier as it was based on who won the most money in a graded stake. In retrospect though, one did have to understand what a graded stake was and why that was more important than a regular stake, so both methods would have had to make a casual race fan do some research too.
In either case, the system is based on performance. You have a good horse and win races, you will earn a spot in the Derby. It’s not a popularity contest and there are no selection committees deciding who can play.
As a horseman, and from the opinion of most trainers I know and have worked with over the years, the Kentucky Derby is self-eliminating and self-fulfilling. The chance of being one of those 20 spots is still the longest shot in racing, but when the opportunity arises, it won't be forgotten.