04/23/2004 12:00AM

In defense of graded-stakes earnings rule


LEXINGTON, Ky. - There has been a lot of discussion in recent days about the merits of the graded stakes earnings provision, which has been used since 1988 to pare down the number of potential Kentucky Derby runners to 20 when more than that number wish to participate. This is a very timely subject because a few Derby hopefuls, including Rock Hard Ten and Eddington, haven't earned enough money in graded stakes races to be included among the top 20 and must hope that other horses who currently outrank them do not enter.

Critics of the system regard it as being unfair. I respect their good intentions, but I couldn't disagree more with the changes they have proposed. It has been suggested that rather than using the objective criteria currently in place, a panel of handicapping experts or racing officials should be made responsible for issuing subjectively based invitations to half of the Derby runners, with the other half getting in based on their performance in graded stakes races.

That is the system in use when a Breeders' Cup race is oversubscribed. Does it work? Nobody can say for sure, but consider this: Every day, at tracks throughout the country, at all class levels, you can find examples of winning horses whose merits were not properly appreciated by any public handicapper. It isn't much of a stretch to believe that some legitimate contenders who were underestimated by the committee would have been upset winners in Breeders' Cup races had they not been excluded by subjective opinions.

If you stop to think about it, haven't you disagreed vehemently hundreds, if not thousands, of times with the opinions of supposed experts in numerous sports? How many times have you seen serious fouls go uncalled and non-existent fouls called by expert referees in an important NBA or NCAA basketball game? How many times have you doubted the subjective opinions of the expert judges in a gymnastic or a figure skating event?

A little closer to home in the world of horse racing, how many times have you been disappointed with the quality of the decisions made by the stewards? Time after time, these experts watch an event take place, and fail miserably in their attempt to understand it after the fact. Does anybody really feel confident about putting them in charge of making crucial calls regarding an event that hasn't yet taken place?

The current system couldn't be more fair. Every horse is given an equal chance to qualify, regardless of how popular or how underestimated he is, and everyone involved knows exactly what the rules are far in advance of the Derby. It is all about performance, not opinions. What could be better?

Let's take a closer look at Rock Hard Ten, one of the Derby hopefuls who is in the middle of this controversy. Rock Hard Ten has only $90,000 in graded stakes earnings. He would have had more, but the expert stewards at Santa Anita disqualified him from second and placed him third in the Santa Anita Derby. Why was he so dependent on the result of that race? That's simple. Prior to this weekend, Rock Hard Ten had made only three career starts, and had run in only a single stakes race. Don't blame the graded stakes earnings rules for his plight. If Rock Hard Ten had been physically and mentally ready to begin his racing career sooner, he would have had enough time to try to live up to the hype he has generated. But as things stand now, he doesn't deserve to be pushed ahead of those Derby contenders who were mature enough and robust enough to accumulate graded stakes earnings as early as last year.

Another reason why Rock Hard Ten hasn't yet qualified is that his connections chose to stay home and run in the Santa Anita Derby, rather than shop for an easier spot. Rock Hard Ten earned a 103 Beyer in defeat in that race. If he had been able to return on 17 days' rest following his allowance win, he could have earned $300,000 in the Grade 2 Lane's End at Turfway with a 94 Beyer, 1 point higher than Sinister G, who won the race. If he had waited one week after the Santa Anita Derby, he could have earned $450,000 with a 98 Beyer in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial.

The graded stakes earnings system rewards clever and aggressive owners and trainers who go out of their way to run their horses in the right races. In an interesting twist, that might turn out to be Rock Hard Ten's salvation. Rock Hard Ten was scheduled to run as the heavy favorite in Saturday's Grade 3, $100,000 Derby Trial. A win there would give Rock Hard Ten enough graded stakes earnings to qualify for the Derby. Then again, that would be pushing things, since under that scenario he would be returning just a week later to run in the Derby. Which brings us back to his primary problem, being behind schedule.

As far as Eddington is concerned, he finished third in the Grade 3 Gotham and third again in the Grade 1 Wood. If he had been a few inches faster and had finished second in the Wood, he would be in much better position. But photo finishes are not unusual in this sport, and not being quite fast enough in a race is a very pertinent flaw.

Please understand that I am not a disinterested observer of Eddington. He is one of six Derby future horses I bet on who are still under consideration for the race, and I have him at 100-1. But if he doesn't get in, there will be no whining from me. He had a fair shake. His fate was decided by his performance on the track, not by the whims and prejudices of a committee of experts.