OLDSMAR — Street Sense rolled into Tampa Bay Downs in 2007 with jockey Calvin Borel on his back and no pressure on his shoulders to win the Tampa Bay Derby.
Having earned more than $1 million in graded money with a victory four months earlier in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Street Sense practically had a stall reserved for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Now for young horses with similar bankrolls to Street Sense, who went on to capture the Tampa Bay Derby and become the first Oldsmar graduate to win the Run for the Roses, that security blanket is gone.
For the first time since 1986, graded earnings are no longer the criteria used for Kentucky Derby qualifying. A point system has been instituted.
Churchill Downs staff said in June it had designated 36 races in which horses can earn points to gain entry to the premier event for 3-year-olds. Each race offers points to the top four finishers in what is called "The Road to the Kentucky Derby." Two races are at Tampa Bay Downs: the Grade II $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on March 9 and the Grade III $250,000 Sam F. Davis on Feb. 2.
The Tampa Bay Derby is one of eight races worth 50 points to the winner (second receives 20, third 10, fourth 5). The Sam F. Davis is one of 19 that give the winner 10 points (10-4-2-1). Seven races are worth 100 points to the winner, including the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach. The series ends with two wild-card races in which the winners receive 20 points.
Churchill Downs officials estimate 40 points will be needed to make the Kentucky Derby's 20-horse field May 5.
Tampa Bay Downs spokeswoman Margo Flynn said she wasn't aware a change was coming. "I was very surprised. … It is (Churchill Downs') race, so they have the prerogative to determine the criteria to be eligible for their race. I do like the aspect that … horses that are running closer to the (Kentucky) Derby (can) get more points, as opposed to horses that were 2-year-olds and may be able to get in for money but haven't done anything since because they were fortunate to win an early 2-year-old stake."
Though Street Sense and other Breeders' Cup Juvenile winners in recent years were virtually assured Kentucky Derby spots, that won't be the case for this year's Cup race, Nov. 3 at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. The winner earns only 10 points.
Churchill Downs also is using points for its Kentucky Oaks, which is limited to 14 fillies May 4. Thirty-five races are in that format, none at Tampa Bay Downs.
"I think we were treated very fairly (in the point system)," Flynn said. "If a horse wins the Tampa Bay Derby and the Sam Davis, it is in a good spot to get into the Kentucky Derby."
The Tampa Bay Downs 2012-13 meet opens Dec. 1.