Updated on 09/17/2011 8:35PM

Derby flaws that need fixing


NEW YORK - Now that Churchill Downs has raised the guaranteed purse for the Kentucky Derby from $1 million to $2 million, it needs to address two more pressing issues involving the race: Who is eligible, and who is also-eligible, to run for that larger purse?

Raising the Derby purse was understandable if unnecessary. No horse has ever been held out of the race because the prize money was a measly million, and the best available horses will continue to run whether the prize is halved or doubled. Still, Churchill was getting a little embarrassed that its signature event and America's most famous race was around the 55th richest Thoroughbred race in the world last year, and it seemed out of whack that some preps for the Derby matched or exceeded the purse for the main event.

So now the Derby will be the 18th rather than 55th richest race in the world, and it will pay down to fifth rather than fourth place. This can only attract more fringe entries, and therein lies the problem.

Regardless of the purse, the race's popularity has never been higher, which is not an entirely good thing when it comes to entries. Given the strength of the high end of the bloodstock market, the continuing growth in the number of Derby preps, increasing foreign participation, and the inexhaustible supply of human vanity, last year's overflow of entries could well become the rule rather than exception.

The current system, limiting entries to the 20 horses with the highest earnings in graded stakes, is the best available solution, and preferable to having a panel make subjective choices open to massive conflicts of interest. The system could stand some tinkering, though. The loophole counting foreign races such as the $2 million UAE Derby needs to be closed before the third-best 3-year-old in Dubai crowds out a worthier American.

It also is open to debate whether every new slots-fueled prep with an inflated purse should count so strongly. Should a placing in the $1 million Boyd's Gaming Delta Downs Jackpot, recently awarded Grade 3 status for next year, really count twice as much as one in the Grade 1, $500,000 Champagne? There may be something to be said for giving the winners of some preps an automatic Derby berth or giving Grade 1 races extra credit.

American racing has far too many rich races for Derby candidates, crowning too many frogs as winners of seemingly major events and giving their owners an unrealistic sense of entitlement to run for the roses. Last year, Rock Hard Ten and Eddington were clearly better than the 21st and 22nd best horses entered in the Derby, but both were excluded from the field under the current system before coming back to run second and third in the Preakness.

Neither one of them was going to win the Derby, but what of the Derby winner himself? Despite having won the $81,000 Count Fleet, the $100,000 Southwest, and the $200,000 Rebel, Smarty Jones went into his final Derby prep, the Arkansas Derby, with $0 in graded-stakes earnings. If Smarty had encountered three lengths worth of trouble and finished a much-the-best third to Borrego and Pro Prado, he would not have been permitted to run in the Kentucky Derby, because his graded earnings would have been lower than those of several hapless 50-1 shots.

Do we really want a system of Derby eligibility where winning the Count Fleet, Southwest, and Rebel counts less than running fourth in the UAE Derby or Delta Jackpot?

Regardless of their earnings, Eddington and Rock Hard Ten should have been allowed to run in last year's Derby because the field had been reduced from 20 to 18 by the day before the race with the defections of St Averil and Wimbledon. There is no good reason that Churchill can not have an also-eligible list that stays open from the Wednesday draw to the start of betting Friday at noon for precisely such situations.

Finally, Churchill looked a little chintzy robbing the purses from some other stakes races to help pay for the Derby increase. Track officials said they were compelled to do so to maintain an agreement with horsemen about not paying more than 30 percent of total purses to stakes races at the meeting, but any such agreement should be recalculated to exclude the Derby.

A surcharge on mint juleps would have been a better funding mechanism. No one who drinks them remembers what they cost, or very much else about Derby Day.