04/30/2004 12:00AM

And then there were 18: St Averil, Wimbledon out

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - St Averil and Wimbledon were scratched Friday morning from Saturday's 130th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, renewing debate over whether there should be an also-eligible list for the Derby.

The Kentucky Derby field is limited to 20 entrants. If more than 20 enter the race, the tie-breaker is earnings in graded stakes races. This year, 22 entered the race Wednesday, but Eddington and Rock Hard Ten were excluded because of insufficient earnings. Had there been an also-eligible list, both Eddington and Rock Hard Ten could have drawn into the race. Instead, a field of 18 was scheduled to go to the post.

"I think if Churchill Downs or Triple Crown Productions wants a 20-horse field, they need to change their system," said Mark Hennig, the trainer of Eddington. "It is 2004. Certainly computers are capable of handling anything. If they don't want a 20-horse field, then they're fine."

John Asher, the vice president for communications at Churchill Downs, said Churchill evaluates its system every year, but finds two hurdles.

"The primary reason is we have advance wagering on the Derby," Asher said. "A scratch after betting opens would make things difficult. In this scenario, the second horse [Rock Hard Ten] might not have gotten in because wagering had already opened. The other reason is the post draw. If we have an also-eligible list and a horse scratches, where should the horse on the also-eligible list go? Part of the strategy of the post draw is picking your post. You take away the strategic advantage otherwise."

Wimbledon was the first and most surprising of the two horses to be scratched from the Derby. Trainer Bob Baffert said Wimbledon was found to have a knot on a tendon on the lower part of his left front leg Friday morning. Wimbledon had galloped strongly in recent days, including Thursday morning, and appeared to be coming into the Derby in excellent form. Baffert theorized that Wimbledon stepped on himself in his stall.

"These horses are so fragile. Just one misstep," Baffert said at a news conference Friday morning. "It's very disappointing. The horse had been training real well."

The injury could be career-threatening, but is not life-threatening. Wimbledon will be out at least 90 days and will miss the entire Triple Crown, Baffert said. The extent of the injury, and chances for returning, will not be known until an ultrasound examination is performed by a veterinarian, Baffert said.

St Averil had been training in bar shoes and was noticeably uncomfortable when galloping Thursday morning, mirroring his recent condition in California. He will be turned out at a farm in Kentucky and given time to recover.

Because of the scratches, the inside two posts in the Derby starting gate will be left open, so the runners will be in posts 3 through 20. Limehouse, who drew the inside, will start from post 3.

- additional reporting by David Grening