03/19/2009 11:00PM

Derby Challenge an odd choice

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NEW YORK - Is it fair that Churchill Downs has awarded a guaranteed starting berth in the 135th Kentucky Derby to the winner of a race at Kempton Park last Wednesday?

Until this year, the Derby was limited to the 20 entrants with the highest career earnings in graded or group stakes races, criteria by which none of the 14 entrants in the Kentucky Derby Challenge at Kempton would have otherwise qualified. Even if the race had been a group event, which it wasn't, the winner's share of the paltry $115,000 purse would not have been enough to make the top 20. No one in the field had career earnings of more than $75,658, and that colt, Deposer, earned most of that total running a distant fourth in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland last fall.

Mafaaz, the winner of the race, had won one of two career starts and $3,627 going in. He won a four-way photo, his career graded-stakes earnings remain at $0, and yet he's guaranteed a spot in the Kentucky Derby - for having won an unranked $115,000 race over a synthetic track on another continent.

The silver lining this year is that Mafaaz is owned and trained by serious horsemen, Shadwell Stable and John Gosden, who are not just going to take the berth and the $100,000 "bonus" Churchill will pay if the Challenge winner runs in the Derby. Even before the race, Gosden said that if he won the Challenge he would next try the Blue Grass Stakes before the Derby to make sure the colt belonged in a classic.

"I think they should prove themselves with another round . . ." said Gosden, "to do right by the horse and by Churchill Downs."

So sportsmanship and merit could carry the day this time, though it's no sure thing. Let's say Mafaaz runs a middling fourth in the Blue Grass, still leaving him with insufficient graded earnings to have made the Derby cutoff under normal circumstances. He'll already be in Kentucky, and if they can make any kind of an excuse for him, why not take a free shot?

The problem here isn't the otherwise laudable goal of encouraging international interest and participation in the Derby. Nor is it necessarily that there's now a "win and you're in" race for the Derby: There already are plenty of graded Derby preps and 2-year-old stakes that are effectively win and you're in races because the winning purse is greater than the usual cutoff point for making the top 20 on graded earnings.

The problem is the choice of this particular race, an ungraded event that does not attract any of England's leading 3-year-olds and that is run on Polytrack, a surface used in Europe not for its top horses but for its mediocre winter runners. It's as if Epsom gave away a spot in its Derby to the winner of the Whirlaway Stakes over the Aqueduct inner track.

There's a bizarre but possible scenario that could play out over the next few weeks involving Mafaaz, who is currently 33-1 for the Derby at English betting shops, and Dunkirk, the 11-1 favorite with those same bookmakers (and the favorite among individual betting interests at 7-1 in Churchill's Pool 2 of Derby futures, which closed last Sunday). Dunkirk is owned by Coolmore, which has an intense global rivalry with the Maktoum family's various racing entities including Shadwell, which owns Mafaaz.

Despite Dunkirk's low odds, he has no graded earnings and will have to win the Florida Derby on March 28 to be assured of a berth in Louisville. It really gets interesting if he finishes second: That would earn him $150,000, which might put him right on the cusp of getting into the race - and one of the horses who could keep him out is Mafaaz.

At least the Derby Challenge race has got people talking, which may speak well for the idea that there is room for an expansion of Derby-related betting handle, which Churchill officials have said is their ultimate goal in all this. There is seemingly inexhaustible interest in Derby preps, no matter how insignificant, with dozens of new bloggers posting weekly top-10 lists and an increased level of scrutiny seeming to surround each race on the road to Louisville. In a year and an economy where racing considers declines of less than 10 percent a pretty good month, the first two pools of Derby future betting (including the new exacta) were up 13 percent over the 2008 figures.