09/18/2008 11:00PM

Churchill tries to fix wrong problem

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NEW YORK - Churchill Downs's announcement last Wednesday that the winner of an obscure race in England next March will get an automatic starting berth into the 2009 Kentucky Derby may or may not be a good idea on its own. If it is the only alteration Churchill is going to make to its flawed system of determining those berths, however, it badly misses the mark by addressing a trivial issue instead of the real ones, and only makes an already unfair situation even worse.

Under the new scheme, whoever wins the new $150,000 Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes at Kempton Park on March 18 will get to run in the Derby even if he is not one of the top 20 qualifiers based on graded-stakes earnings. This year, the No. 20 spot that went to Denis of Cork, who finished third in the Derby and second in the Belmont Stakes, would instead have gone to a horse who might have earned half as much, never faced legitimate group or graded-level stakes company, and probably had never run on the dirt.

Such a horse could easily knock out a top American prospect who came up a nose short making his stakes debut in Grade 1 company in the Wood Memorial or Santa Anita Derby. Where's the fairness in that?

There is no compelling sporting reason to guarantee an English synthetic-track specialist of questionable merits a berth in our Derby. In announcing the new plan, Churchill officials talked about how difficult it is for European horses to qualify under the graded-earnings system because there aren't many group stakes there in early spring.

Here's a solution: If a European trainer really thinks he has a Derby-worthy horse, how about sending him over here for one of our existing graded Derby preps, finding out if he's good enough, and letting him qualify just like any other American-based prospect? If an English trainer wants to prep for the Derby by running over Polytrack the third week in March, what's wrong with the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway? Or why can't such a horse run in the UAE Derby on the Dubai World Cup card, a dirt race that already is effectively an automatic qualifier thanks to its outlandish $2 million purse?

What needs to be fixed is not the plight of European prospects for the Kentucky Derby, a tiny group if it exists at all, but the use of gross purse dollars for determining starting berths. The problem isn't that the winners of major stakes are in jeopardy of being shut out - any race with a $500,000 purse is a virtual Win and You're In event - but that there are third-rate races with enormous purses that currently count too heavily.

The $750,000 Delta Jackpot Stakes is a Grade 3 race for second-tier 2-year-olds that counts more than Grade 1 and 2 preps for 3-year-olds because of its slots-enhanced purse. The winner is guaranteed a Derby berth even if he goes on to prove repeatedly he doesn't belong in the race, as happened with Z Humor this year.

Dollars just don't work in a freewheeling stakes system where lesser races are richer than important ones. This can be fixed pretty easily by switching from currency to points based on the grades of races rather than whether there are slot machines in the states where they are held. Implementing such a system is a more important change than tossing a berth to one of a group of horses whose current absence is by choice and whose presence is a much lower priority than treating better candidates more fairly.

The real reason for the new arrangement appears to be a commercial one, not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that. Churchill president Steve Sexton tipped his hand in the announcement when he said that "A consistent international presence in the Derby will strengthen worldwide interest in our race and, in the long term, boost demand for the event as we work to expand distribution of Kentucky Derby wagering opportunities into new international markets."

A fair point; attracting new streams of foreign betting money into the Derby pools would benefit horseplayers as well as Churchill's stockholders. But simply adding an obscure 50-1 shot to the field at the expense of an American runner, without fixing the current system, does not seem the optimal strategy for accomplishing that.