Crowning Champions

By William Keith
Each year, the Thoroughbred industry has a great championship day--the Breeders' Cup. At the end of the big day, we have winners, but NO champions. Instead, that determination is put on hold. The fans are asked to wait. Three months later, in the middle of winter, last year's champions are finally announced. By then, it's stale news.

There's a much better way. Base the championships directly on performance. Award points for top three finishes in graded stakes races. The horse that accumulates the most points wins the championship. It's that simple. How refreshing to no longer hear the unending lobbying of trainers and owners. How fun to be able to track the standings of your favorite horses. And how exciting to be able to clearly see what's at stake on Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships day.

Of course, many will resist changing the current format. They'll claim that a point system cannot properly evaluate Thoroughbred racing. But I counter that a point system can effectively define the real champions. Further, it has the huge benefit of being transparent. Everyone knows the standings--owners, trainers and, most importantly, the fans. Every major sport publishes standings for their fans. Even NASCAR has joined the act with their Winston Cup points. Horse racing needs to get on board. Wouldn't it be nice to see horse racing's divisional standings in the Sunday paper?

So, what point system should be put in place? I suggest awarding 24 points for first-place finishes in grade I races, eight points for second, and four points for third. For grade II races, award half the grade I values. For grade III races, award one-quarter the grade I values. For the eight Breeders' Cup races and the Kentucky Derby, award double the grade I values. The scoring should run for a complete year culminating with the Breeders' Cup.

As a fan, I want to see the division leaders run. This system encourages that. Horses are awarded for good performances, not penalized for bad ones. It may also help reinvigorate the Breeders' Cup prep races. Training a horse up to the Breeders' Cup may no longer seem so attractive. While your horse is in the barn, the competition is out scoring points--points your horse could earn by running.

Racing secretaries across the nation may argue that their premier grade I races should also be doubled in value. But outside the Breeders' Cup races, only one other race, the Kentucky Derby, has consistently demonstrated championship credentials--large fields of the very best horses including shippers from overseas.

Others may question ending the year with the Breeders' Cup races. But there is no real justification for ending Dec. 31 either. Ending the year at the Breeders' Cup provides for a dramatic finish solidifying the Breeders' Cup as Thoroughbred horse racing's championship day.

Still skeptical? Let's apply this point system to the 2003 season. Of the nine Eclipse Award divisions, the top point earner matches the Eclipse winner in five of the nine categories. The point system disagrees with the voters by selecting Elloluv over Bird Town, Sightseek over Azeri, and Johar and Tates Creek over High Chaparral and Islington, respectively. The selection of Elloluv can be attributed to the accounting differences. If the point system was applied to the calendar year, Bird Town would have edged Elloluv 68 to 66. The selection of Sightseek is due to her greater production. Sightseek had more wins and more places including one more grade I win.

As for the turf divisions, High Chaparral and Islington both ran great races at the Breeders' Cup. But should they be crowned champions on the strength of a single race? I don't think so.

Now, I'm not advocating using the point system to select the Horse of the Year. This judgment should include aspects beyond just results. I'd leave this to the voters. But for each of the individual divisions, the point system provides an effective way to crown the champions. More importantly, it allows the race for the championships to be shared with the fans. They'll be able to watch and keep score. And when championship day is over, they'll be able to celebrate their champions just like the fans of every other sport.

WILLIAM KEITH is a structural engineer and avid horse racing fan living in Southern California.