05/09/2002 12:00AM

Bonus: A dirty little word


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - A bad idea is always a bad idea, no matter how it may try to change its stripes. Backyard fireworks, deep-fried cheese, Australian rules football, blind dates - you can always find one lucky soul who can speak well of the experience. But that doesn't change the fact that they are all bad ideas, and they usually bring nothing but grief.

Let it never be forgotten, therefore, that the bad idea of the multi-race bonus gained a foothold in this business with the specific purpose of subverting the Triple Crown.

That was 1985, when Robert Brennan was running Garden State Park. He laid out a $2 million bonus incentive for any horse who could win the Cherry Hill Mile, the Garden State Stakes, and the Jersey Derby at his track, as long as they won the Kentucky Derby along the way.

Spend a Buck complied, but to do so he had to pass both the Preakness and the Belmont. The Triple Crown was knocked off the front page, at least that year, while the racing press followed the money. The panic was palpable, and as a result the Triple Crown tracks responded by offering bonus schemes of their own. The Garden State series disappeared, but the residue has lingered for 17 years.

The fuss over the split of the $1 million bonus earned by War Emblem for winning the Illinois Derby and Kentucky Derby is only the latest in a long, ugly series of bonus-related embarrassments. The concept showed flaws from the beginning, when Angel Cordero - who won the first three races in the series on Spend a Buck - chose to ride elsewhere on the day of the climactic Jersey Derby. Laffit Pincay, his replacement, got the prize. Angel was shut out for any cut of the $2 million windfall.

Three years later, with the $1 million Triple Crown performance bonus in full swing, owner Louis Roussel balked publicly at giving Eddie Delahoussaye the customary 10 percent jockey's share of the bonus earned by Risen Star for running third in the Derby, then winning the Preakness and the Belmont. Delahoussaye, who was along for the ride in all three, held his ground and was eventually paid.

The performance bonus required that a horse show up in all three legs of the Triple Crown, which did nothing to help the fields, but did manage to add another layer of pressure to the already difficult job of getting a young 3-year-old through the spring in one piece. Owners and trainers now were faced with a million dollars worth of temptation to do the wrong thing.

The Triple Crown performance bonus died a quiet death in 1993 when Sea Hero won $1 million by winning the Derby, then finishing fifth in the Preakness and seventh in the Belmont Stakes.

By 1994, grass horses had their own million-dollar bonus package in the spring, sponsored by Early Times. That's when Bill Mott, trainer of eventual turf champion Paradise Creek, discovered the meaning of fine print.

After winning the Early Times Classic at Churchill Downs, Paradise Creek still needed to take the Dixie Handicap at Pimlico and the Manhattan Handicap at Belmont to win the bonus. He did, but the check never arrived.

Seems there was a clause in the bonus contract - demanded by the insurance company - that required fields of at least six participate in each of the three races. Six were entered in the Dixie, but only five ran after trainer Dickie Small scratched his horse over a stabling snag. The insurance company was off the hook.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Mott was singularly unimpressed by the multi-million-dollar bonus package sponsored by MGM Grand and dangled by Southern California racetracks in early 1996, in a frenzied attempt to attract Cigar for the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic. As it turned out, a bruised hoof and the Dubai World Cup kept Cigar otherwise occupied that winter.

Nevertheless, the show went on, with $2 million at stake for a horse that could win all three races and another $500,000 up for grabs for the horse with the best record in all three. Chaos reigned.

An overachieving Cal-bred named Luthier Fever had managed to finish second in a forgettable running of the Santa Anita Handicap that March. After a trip to Oaklawn Park, he went badly off form and was eased in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Still, his owners - a partnership from Mexico City - insisted that Luthier Fever run in the Pacific Classic. All he had to do was show up and they would bank the $500,000.

That's about all he did. While Dare and Go was beating Cigar up front, Luthier Fever was jogging under the wire, 44 lengths behind the winner. He never raced again.

It is hard to blame the people at Sportsman's Park for trying to promote their revamped Illinois Derby. It is just a shame they could not see beyond built-in pitfalls of the bonus concept. All the positive spin derived from War Emblem's leap from Chicago's south side to the top of the game has been erased by the battle for the bonus. Please, let this be a lesson, and the last time we ever hear the word.