The Derby is the Derby. But Churchill Downs doesn't want to take any chances with what it considers the signature event in Thoroughbred racing.
So on Jan. 4, the Louisville, Ky., racetrack announced it has increased the purse for the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) from $1 million guaranteed to $2 million guaranteed, effective this year. The 2005 Derby is slated for May 7.
The Derby is now the richest North American race for 3-year-olds. Another $2-million event for 3-year-olds, the group II UAE Derby, is held in the United Arab Emirates in conjunction with the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) program.
The richest race in the United States is the Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered By Dodge (gr. I) with a purse of $4 million. The Kentucky Derby is now tied for second with the John Deere Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. I) and the Nextel Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I), the only other American races to carry a purse of $2 million.
The Derby, first leg of the Visa Triple Crown, hasn't fallen victim to any competition. However, the American racing landscape is changing. For instance, Delta Downs Racetrack & Casino, where purses benefit from slot machine revenue, offers the Delta Jackpot (gr. III), a $1-million race for 2-year-olds, and Mountaineer Racetrack & Gaming Resort recently hiked the purse of its West Virginia Derby (gr. III) to $750,000 for 2005.
"We just felt it was time to raise the purse," Churchill president Steve Sexton said during a press conference in the track's Jockey Club Suites. "It was time to show our commitment to what the Derby really is."
Sexton called $2 million "the magic number" given purses around the country. "I don't know if you raised it to a higher level that it would attract a different caliber of horses," he said.
Sexton noted the Derby and undercard races generate handle that fuels overnight purses for horsemen who compete in overnight races and stakes. The Derby also is the major revenue-producer for Churchill.
Churchill will provide a minimum of $1.1 million of the $2-million purse, in part through a redistribution of money in the purse account for stakes. Fees to enter and start in the Derby will be raised from $15,000 to $25,000, respectively, for a total of $50,000 that must be paid before each horse can pass through the starting gate in the race. Those fees will become part of the Derby purse.
The race will now offer purse money to the race's top five finishers instead of top four, with 62% of the purse dedicated to the winner. The distribution of a $2-million Derby purse would be $1.24 million for first, $400,000 for second, $200,000 for third, $100,000 for fourth, and $60,000 for fifth.
About $100,000 in purse money for the Derby will come from nomination fees to the Visa Triple Crown Challenge. Those fees remain unchanged in 2005, but the cost of a supplemental nomination at the time of entry to the Derby will increase from $150,000 to $200,000.
Early nominations, with a fee of $600, are due Jan. 22. Late nominations, with a fee of $6,000, are due by March 26. One third of those nomination fees go to the Derby purse.
Entry and starting fees for the Derby were last raised in 1996, when the purse rose from $500,000 added to $1 million guaranteed. Each fee was increased that year from $10,000 to $15,000.
Any nomination, entry, starting or supplemental entry fees beyond a level of $900,000 will go to the winner's share of the overall Derby purse.
The increase in the Derby purse will have no impact on purses for overnight races. Daily purses at Churchill averaged $471,283 in 2004, and Sexton said he expects purses to average about $480,000 per day in 2005, when the massive reconstructive project at the Louisville landmark will be completed.
"We certainly anticipate stronger business levels when we open up our new facility," Sexton said. "The reallocation of purse money will have a minor impact on our stakes program."
The Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association have given their approval to the reallocation of stakes funding.
Churchill has reallocated $375,000 in purse money from other stakes to support the Derby purse hike. It also has scrapped the $125,000 Kentucky Breeders' Cup Stakes (gr. III) for 2-year-olds, at least for 2005.
Other changes in the Churchill stakes program for 2005 include a reduction in the purse for the Fleur De Lis Handicap (gr. II) from $400,000 to $300,000; the addition of $50,000 in Breeders' Cup funds to keep the purse for the Northern Dancer Breeders' Cup (gr. III) at $200,000; a purse decrease of $50,000 ($150,000 to $100,000) for the Early Times Mint Julep Handicap (gr. III); a reduction in the purse for the Ack Ack Handicap (gr. III) from $150,000 to $100,000; and a reduction in the purse for the Chilukki Handicap (gr. II, formerly the Churchill Downs Distaff) from $200,000 to $150,000.
"When you make a race $2 million, there have to be some casualties," Churchill racing secretary Doug Bredar said of the revised stakes purses. "But I think the purse structure is so strong, this will have hardly any affect whatsoever."
Bredar said the Kentucky Jockey Club would leave the schedule because since 1995, the race hasn't drawn a field larger than eight horses. The stakes is one of three for 2-year-old males during the spring meet.
Bredar said the race could return in 2006, and that for 2005, he might card an overnight handicap for 2-year-olds to maintain continuity in the schedule.
"We'll certainly have options for (horsemen)," Bredar said. "We don't want to see them run elsewhere."
The 2005 Churchill stakes schedule will be released later in the week of Jan. 3, officials said.