09/18/2008 12:00AM

Derby Challenge intriguing

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - This weekend in this city, tens of thousands will pour into Valhalla Golf Club to watch the Ryder Cup, with millions more all over the world watching on television, to see how American golfers fare against their European counterparts.

What makes the event intriguing, beyond the brilliance of the golfers, is its international involvement and rivalry, which has drawn press and fans from abroad.

So in that spirit it is understandable why Churchill Downs would want to make America's greatest horse race, the Kentucky Derby, something even grander.

Wednesday Churchill Downs announced plans to broaden its international appeal of the Derby with the creation of the Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes, a 1 1/8-mile clockwise race over Polytrack at Kempton Park in Great Britain on March 18.

Beyond the $150,000 purse, at stake is a free ride to Louisville for the first Saturday in May. The winner gets a guaranteed starting position in the field in the case of an oversubscribed field, along with a $100,000 check for starting in the Derby - which is meant to cover the $50,000 in entry and starting fees, plus expenses associated with the horse being shipped to Kentucky.

Barring a setback for the winner, likely the end result will be a foreign competitor in next year's Derby, something that hasn't happened since 2002.

That horse's presence might draw more media from overseas, perhaps even cause more television sets in Europe to tune into the race, but I doubt the pulse of American horseplayers is quickening with the news.

Dirt racing is not the Europeans' game. Most of their horses are bred for turf and for stamina, and success on Polytrack - the surface on which this prep will be run - does not automatically translate to dirt success, as we've seen with American horses. (Look no further than Dominican beating Street Sense in the 2007 Blue Grass over Polytrack and then losing by nearly 18 lengths to him in the Derby for an example.)

This prep comes at a cost to Churchill Downs, which is supplying $90,000 of the $150,000 purse of the race, plus the $100,000 bonus, should the horse break from the gate. This money come from the Churchill Downs marketing fund - but in a year when the track has cut purses following a dispute with horsemen over advance deposit wagering revenues.

There is a potential cost for owners of Derby hopefuls and horseplayers, too. In the event that entries for the Derby exceed the maximum field size of 20, which has been the case in recent years, the Kentucky Derby Challenge winner would not need to be among the top 20 horses in graded earnings - the criteria used to determine which horses gain entry when the race is oversubscribed.

This would mean there would be 19 spots available to other entrants based on graded earnings. So the European horse's presence could exclude a U.S. horse who might be deemed by the public to have a stronger chance of winning.

To illustrate, realize that this year's third-place finisher in the Derby, Denis of Cork, was the last of 20 horses to make the race based on graded earnings.

I asked David Carroll, the trainer of Denis of Cork, how he would have felt if his horse had been excluded by a winner of a European prep race, and he acknowledged that the presence of the automatic European qualifier might not be entirely fair to the U.S. runners, but he was quick to point out that a number of horses who run in the Derby don't belong in the race, anyway.

Although Denis of Cork was a legitimate contender in the Derby this year, usually horses who rank 20th or so in graded earnings are Derby outsiders because of inexperience or talent limitations.

I see this new European prep simply resulting in a foreign longshot taking the place of an American one.

A little more unsettling is the $100,000 bonus awarded to the owner if the Derby Challenge winner competes in the Derby. If, heaven forbid, an injury occurs to the horse in the Derby, rightly or wrongly the perception of the public would be that the owner might have run an unfit horse merely to collect a six-figure payoff.

One could argue the prestige of racing in the Derby, and the unlikelihood of ever having another horse good enough for the race, are bigger incentives for an owner to run than $100,000 - but you can bet that groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and perhaps even the mainstream media, would jump all over Churchill and the horse's connections if something unfortunate were to happen to the animal.

To Churchill's credit, it has allowed the owner of the Derby Challenge winner to back out of the race and still get some compensation, provided the horse has a satisfactory veterinary explanation for not running.

So if the horse were to bruise a foot a day or two before the race, following entries, the owner could have his entry fee of $25,000 refunded by Churchill, giving him an incentive to do the right thing and scratch.

One thing is certain, if the Derby Challenge winner runs in next year's Derby, he will garner attention - hopefully more for good than bad reasons.