02/26/2007 12:00AM

Derby hopefuls buck the rules


NEW YORK - Of the 25 3-year-olds listed in last week's edition of Derby Watch, seven had what could diplomatically be termed "interesting" profiles.

Street Sense, Ravel, Great Hunter, and Stormello - half of the top eight horses on Daily Racing Form's weekly Kentucky Derby ranking - are all on schedules that would have them get only two prep races this year for the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Belgravia, whose recent illness makes his status for the Derby shaky at best, would, if he makes the Derby, have no more than two prep races this year. Day Pass, who is ostensibly readying for the Derby in Dubai, would also have only two starts this year if he makes it to Churchill Downs, while Curlin will try to make it to the Derby despite not racing last year.

What makes the profiles of these horses notable is that no horse since Sunny's Halo 24 years ago has won the Derby with fewer than three previous starts at 3, and no horse has won the Kentucky Derby without having raced at 2 since Apollo in 1882. And it isn't as if only abject bums have tried to bust these streaks. For example, Pulpit never raced as a 2-year-old in 1996. But off wins in the Blue Grass and Fountain of Youth and a second in the Florida Derby he was a highly fancied participant in the 1997 Derby, in which he finished fourth.

And then there is Point Given. He was light years better than any other member of the 3-year-old crop of 2001, but he mysteriously ran the worst race of his life when fifth in the Derby off of only two preps.

Some might say that bringing up these so-called "Derby Rules" - I prefer to call them guidelines - is either foolish or stubborn, particularly in the wake of what Barbaro did last year. Barbaro, of course, last year became the first horse in 50 years to win the Derby without having raced in five or more weeks. And Barbaro didn't merely win. He was sensational, winning by 6 1/2 lengths, the biggest margin in 60 years.

It could well be that Barbaro's victory in the 2006 Kentucky Derby marked a sea change in the way we should look for top 3-year-olds to be brought up to winning performances in the Derby. Indeed, if enough leading Derby aspirants arrive at Churchill with profiles differing from those that traditionally have defined the successful Derby candidate, their sheer numbers might inevitably result in more Derby wins, and also might eventually erode the Derby guidelines that have stood up so well for so long.

"Might" is the key word there. It is important to remember that the "old fashioned" Derby guidelines - 2-year-old experience, at least three preps at 3, and a start within four weeks of the Derby - speak to foundation, seasoning, and fitness. And those qualities never figure to go completely out of style in a race like the Derby, which is the toughest race in America to win on a variety of levels.

So, while Barbaro's victory in last year's Derby taught me to be a little less dogmatic when it comes to requiring Derby aspirants to rigidly fit a set of guidelines, the possibility that Barbaro was so sensational a horse that he was simply the exception to the rule should make others pause before tossing some of these Derby guidelines into the trash.

The Derby game itself hasn't changed. What has changed is the strategy many trainers are using with their horses to play this game. And unless they absolutely have the right horse, it doesn't mean some of these trainers are playing the Derby game the right way.

The international races quandary

The 2007 Dubai World Cup will be run on March 31, five weeks before the Kentucky Derby. And with 2006 Horse of the Year Invasor, the undefeated and brilliant Discreet Cat, and the immensely improved Premium Tap being the three leading candidates for the race, this Dubai Cup not only equals last year's Breeders' Cup Classic in terms of quality, but also it might, if it holds together, prove to be the best race run all year, anywhere.

As huge a race as it promises to be, on its own the Dubai Cup won't have a significant impact on year-end Eclipse Award voting. Even with its early placement on the calendar, this Dubai Cup might have had a big influence on year-end championships in the pre-Breeders' Cup era. But with the enormous impact the Breeders' Cup has on Eclipse Award voting, this Dubai Cup, as major an event as it might be, won't be much more than a minor consideration at season's end.

This, however, brings to mind a point I think needs definition when it comes to the Eclipse Award voting process, and that is, how much weight should be given, if any, to international performance when it comes determining U.S. champions?

I understand that what defines a champion means different things to different Eclipse Award voters. And that individuality in Eclipse Award voting should never be taken away. But on the other hand, consider Red Rocks. He won the biggest turf race of the year last year, the Breeders' Cup Turf, but he barely got a whiff in Eclipse Award voting, presumably being penalized for less-than-stellar previous form in Europe.

Should his European form have mattered, considering what he did on this soil? Say Invasor wins the Dubai Cup, but is less than effective back here at home in the major fall races. Would it be inconsistent not to reward him for what he did in Dubai, even if it took place half a world away?

Given how the racing world is shrinking, perhaps it's time for some official clarification on this matter.