03/13/2012 4:27PM

Derby Graded Earnings Rule - Again

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For years now, yours truly, and others, have talked about the flaws in the Kentucky Derby graded earnings rule, which mandates that the 20 starters in an oversubscribed Derby field will be determined on earnings in graded stakes events. Some of us have even proposed ways to improve the rule, such as:

• Devaluing graded earnings in some 2-year-old stakes (the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile would be one of a few obvious exceptions) so as to put a premium on 3-year-old graded stakes earnings.

• Devaluing graded earnings in sprint races so as to put a premium on graded earnings in route races.

• And devaluing graded earnings in turf and synthetic track races so as to put a premium on graded earnings in races run on dirt, the surface on which the Derby is run.

These proposals, and others similar to them, are as old as the Derby graded earnings debate itself. But as time goes on, and the graded earnings rule remains unchanged, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that Churchill Downs likes the rule just the way it is, warts and all. Hey, debate over the faults of this rule means people are talking about the Derby, and any talk about the Derby I’m sure is just fine with the folks at Churchill. The more talk, the better.

[KENTUCKY DERBY: View full graded earnings list]

But lately, it seems we have entered a new phase of the Derby graded earnings rule issue. Perhaps it has crystallized this year, because for the first time, the Derby will allow up to as many four also eligibles (so will the Kentucky Oaks) at the time of entry. These also eliglbles will be ranked in order of preference on the basis of graded earnings, which puts an even greater emphasis on graded earnings than ever before. So now it appears the connections of Kentucky Derby aspirants are, with little choice, I might add, strategizing with graded earnings in mind as much as other, seemingly more important factors.

Consider Bodemeister. Bodemeister ran in last Saturday’s San Felipe Stakes off of only a (very impressive) maiden victory, in part because he was the barn’s ready replacement for Fed Biz, who had to be withdrawn due to physical issues, and in part because he had zero graded stakes earnings, and he needed to collect as much of that as he could as soon as possible if he was to secure a starting spot in the Derby. By running in the San Felipe, Bodemeister, a colt who making only his third career start, was being asked a lot, and quickly.

But moving up fast was the only thing Bodemeister could do if he was to remain a viable candidate for the Derby. The weird thing is, while he earned $60,000 Saturday for finishing a game second, he is still in a precarious position, graded earnings-wise. Yet on the basis of performance, Bodemeister is currently one of the top Derby win threats out there. At this point, he is the only leading contender to have earned two triple-digit Beyer Figures. In any case, you just have to hope that rushing Bodemeister doesn’t wind up setting him back.

Then there is Gemologist. He won the Kentucky Jockey Club last fall, so he is currently in okay position on the graded earnings list at around 17th after you strip away unlikely Derby starters. Being in that position enables Gemologist to make his 3-year-old debut Friday in an allowance race at Gulfstream instead of going after $500,000 in graded stakes money in Saturday’s Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, a tougher race for sure, but one that would have been much more definitive in determining Gemologist’s real Derby status.

The graded earnings rule also seems to be increasingly propagating the number Derby horses who engage in only two prep starts at 3. Under the current graded earnings rule, several colts who are already safely in the Derby after amassing sizeable graded earnings at 2 don’t have to prep at 3 with the same frequency or urgency as those who aren’t in as fortunate a position. That should work fine for a colt like Union Rags, who is undeniably one of the best members of his generation. But you could wonder how it will work for more marginal Derby hopefuls such as Dullahan, and Sabercat.

With the days of the 20 horse Kentucky Derby looking like they are here to stay, we must become comfortable with the role of graded earnings in determining the composition of the Derby field. It also appears we must learn to live with the fact that now, graded earnings, and where they can be most effectively collected, is as important a factor in the development of an early 3-year-old with potential as is selecting the two or three prep races that might actually best fit the horse. But if this is the new normal, then we should also have a graded earnings rule most of us can be comfortable with, too - an amended, updated, focused graded earnings rule that produces the strongest Kentucky Derby field possible.