- “The 20-horse Derby field lets in owners who should be eating hot dogs at Beulah Park in Ohio. Few of the half-dozen or more undeserving horses racing in the Derby are ever heard from again. You say you had a horse in the Derby? So did around 200 others last decade.
So writes Jay Cronley for ESPN in “22,000 pounds of trouble“.
Mr Cronley opens his article with the statement:
- “It’s never too early to complain about the size of the Kentucky Derby field, 20 horses, a few of whom know how to run correctly.”
We agree with Cronley, even if we are coming at this issue from different angles.
Not long ago, already thinking about this, I surveyed 56 Thoroughbred horse racing people, from owners to trainers, riders to grooms, a handful of breeders and even a few hacks (a term of endearment for writers), asking them what they believe the optimum number of horses starting in the Kentucky Derby is.
Everyone responded except the writers. Of those answering, 39 stated 14 as the ideal number of runners in the Kentucky Derby; 12 stated the number is fine as is.
Almost all of those responding elaborated on their answers, including statements such as, it would be safer for horse and jockey and ensure a higher caliber field of runners if the number of starters was reduced to 14. Others agreeing with the number 14 said it would enhance the chances of there being another Triple Crown winner. There were also many among the respondents who rejected the idea that too many horses deserving to win the Kentucky Derby would lose their chance if the field were limited to 14.
The most interesting notion coming out of my informal survey was one from a Lexington based breeder who is strongly in favor of keeping a large field for the Kentucky Derby. What he objects to are the starting stalls. He states that they should be done away with and the Kentucky Derby should be run from a standing start.
- ” . . . get all that damned metal out of the way. Let the horses line up and jump off all at the same time. No gates and you eliminate all the problems. You could easily have up to 24 horses. Churchill [Downs] is plenty wide enough.”
What many added concerning the question of field size for the Kentucky Derby, and always seems to be the bottom line whenever horse racing is discussed is . . . . the bottom line. Money.
- “Sadly, you will never get the gambling establishment to go for putting the number of runners back to 14,” said a leading trainer. “This is one of their biggest betting days of the year.”
Yes, the gambling aspect is a huge consideration. With a large field, there are more horses to bet on. But the bottom line does not begin and end with the gambling.
There is the prize money, opportunities for breeding incentives to be won, plus the fame and accolades that can be spun into cash by trainers and jockeys.
Of course the bottom line must always be considered. It would be foolish to try to leave it out. To the winner goes the spoils, as they say. My question is, where is the balance?
Is putting on a Kentucky Derby with 20 optimistic hopefuls, with perhaps only a dozen of whom should really be there, really preferable to having a safer, more honest race among 14 best bred, high class Thoroughbreds, whose mettle has been tested, running for those famous roses?