04/29/2004 11:00PM

Derby eligible for change

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NEW YORK - Should the Kentucky Derby have an also-eligible list?

It sure seemed like a good idea after Friday morning's developments at Churchill Downs, when first Wimbledon and then St Averil were withdrawn from the race. That left a field of 18 rather than 20 and two empty stalls that could have been filled by Rock Hard Ten and Eddington, who were entered Wednesday but excluded because they ranked 21st and 22nd on graded-stakes earnings. Why couldn't they have been put on an also-eligible list and allowed to draw in Friday morning after the defections?

"It's something we've talked about before, and something I'm sure we'll talk about again now," said Doug Bredar, Churchill's racing secretary, on Friday afternoon. "There are several issues involved. There's tradition and history. Do you really want to send out a program page all over the world with a number 21 and 22 and 23 who probably don't run? Then there's advance betting, and what's fair there. There are also some tote issues. We can take up to 24 with futures betting, but it's not clear that works for everyone with the Derby itself."

The advance betting issue is the most serious. The only way an also-eligible system would work would be to have a Friday noontime cutoff on the final field. While horseplayers frequently have to suffer the slings and arrows of late scratches, you simply can't let people start betting on a race and then add horses to the field.

If the tote system is a problem, which it probably is given the tote companies' history of intransigence and outdated technology, it should be upgraded immediately. This idea that it is complicated and costly to take bets on more than 20 or even 24 interests in a win pool is a complete fiction and has served to stifle the growth of Derby futures and Breeders' Cup futures betting. The Fix Six boys from Drexel could probably do the programming on a one-day furlough.

An also-eligible list would not always work as neatly as it might have this year. Horses are as likely to come out of the race Friday afternoon or Saturday morning as they are between Wednesday and Friday. There's also a question of whether it's reasonable to ask the owners of the also-eligibles to fly their horses to Churchill and have them standing by in the faint hopes of a defection or two or three.

In addition, there is a scenario for further mischief in the already complicated game of using an entry to exclude a rival. Suppose that Bob Baffert, Wimbledon's trainer, or Rafael Becerra, who trains St Averil, had also had another horse in the race. Other than saintliness, what would motivate them to have withdrawn Wimbledon or St Averil by noontime Friday, hurting their own chances with their other horse by allowing yet another opponent into the field?

It might not work all the time, but on balance it seems that an also-eligible list would do more good than harm. Friday at noon is more than enough of a head start for betting the Derby or the Oaks-Derby double. Both business and the sport would be better served by having Rock Hard Ten and Eddington in the gate rather than two empty stalls.

Another proposed reform to the Derby entry process, allotting some starting berths to horses selected by a panel rather then awarding all spots by graded-stakes earnings, has been widely discussed this year. It is worth thinking about, but ultimately should be rejected.

A similar partially invitational process is necessary in the Breeders' Cup because of the races' international nature. The earnings and group-race performances of foreign-based horses can not be meaningfully ranked against domestic runners, and a purely numerical system would often exclude Europe's best at the expense of 100-1 Americans with points or dollars earned in irrelevant races.

The graded-earnings rule for the Derby, however, is the fairest way to allot the 20 berths. Advocates of reform cite Eddington as a victim and say that he should have been included at the expense of horses with weaker recent form, but that adds an element of entirely speculative handicapping to the process. Do we really want a panel of analysts awarding starting berths based on their opinions of who had tough trips and who might bounce?

It would also raise hideous conflict-of-interest situations and potential lawsuits galore. A Derby start means a chance not only at the front end of a $1 million purse but also at becoming a $20 million stallion in two minutes. Churchill Downs should never be put in the position of decreeing that a horse with lesser earnings, perhaps owned by one of its board members or a loyal local horseman, should get that chance over a horse with higher earnings.

Rock Hard Ten and Eddington should not have been allowed to run if there were 20 entrants with higher earnings. When that number went down to 18 Friday morning, though, it's a shame they couldn't have been also-eligible to join the party.