No one would want to see or hear a headline that screamed “Kentucky Derby Marred by Pileup Shortly After Start.”

If that kind of mishap were to occur, especially on the congested first turn at Churchill Downs, the outcry and recriminations would immediately ensue. Critics would zero in on the unwieldy 20-horse field size and how Churchill Downs management had to know that it was an accident waiting to happen.

The repercussions would undoubtedly result in a perfunctory investigation of how the Derby could be made safer and ultimately perhaps a limit on the number of starters. This would be a classic case of closing the barn door after the horse has escaped.

A streamlined field size mitigates the risks of a traffic-related episode and puts Churchill Downs in a more defensible position should such an incident take place. In virtually every Kentucky Derby, the primary contenders are far fewer than the customary 20 starters. Thus a field of 12 to 14 entries would normally allow in all of the main contenders, and still leave room for plenty of outsiders with a shot to win the race.

Besides addressing the all-important safety issue, a smaller field would reduce the likelihood of horses being compromised by poor racing luck. Currently, a favorite that draws the rail must put in a Herculean effort and have ample luck to overcome the obstacle.

Another alternative for improving the race is to seed the starters rather than leaving post-position assignments to a random draw, similar to how the NCAA seeds teams in its annual basketball tournament in order to reward teams with the best credentials. The connections of the horse with the highest total in the Churchill Downs point system would get first choice of post position and this merit-based procedure would proceed until all of the post positions were filled.

The Eight Belles breakdown in the 2008 Kentucky Derby did lasting damage to horse racing’s image. Whereas that misfortune was unavoidable, safety hazards pertaining to field size can be lessened, while concomitantly increasing the prospects that all of the horses will have a clear path to victory.

Copyright © 2013 The Blood-Horse. Used with permission.


  1. I could never understand why the International Cataloguing Standards Book (Pattern Committee) don’t insist on the reducing in rank of most of these American “Grade One” races.
    A grade/group one race.. is opened to anyone who thinks that his/her horse is good enough to run in it.. that is the worldwide rule.
    The Kentucky Derby is NOT a true open race.. it is simply a high class restricted race, no different from other ‘state’ restricted races.
    To be fair.. the problem is with those pretentious owners who run their horses in the race, simply to boast to their neighbours that they have a runner in the Kentucky Derby.

  2. MarvHunter says

    The powers that be at Churchill will scramble to put the best face on things and thin the field size too late. The responsibility should go to the top.