04/17/2008 11:00PM

Derby qualifications need fine-tuning


NEW YORK - Now that it's clear that the Kentucky Derby is perpetually going to attract more than the 20 entries to which it is limited, Churchill Downs needs to reconsider both how horses qualify for the race and what to do with the overflow. The entry procedures are set in stone for this year, but it's time to consider some alternatives for 2009.

The first issue is the use of earnings in graded stakes as the criteria for selecting the field of 20. While this system has the appearance of simplicity to recommend it, it falls apart because of the inequity among purses in prep races. A richer race is not necessarily a better race, and even a couple of distorted purses can scuttle the fairness of the entire procedure.

The most glaring example is the Delta Jackpot for 2-year-olds, which came into Derby play for this year when it was awarded graded status for its 2007 running. The December race does not attract the nation's top juveniles, but because it offers a $1omillion purse, it is more valuable for Derby qualification than Grade 1 events such as the $250,000 Norfolk and $400,000 Champagne for 2-year-olds, or even the $750,000 Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, or Santa Anita Derby for 3-year-olds. This year's cutoff for the top 20 may end up right in the $150,000-to-$200,000 range, in theory qualifying a second-place Jackpot finisher at the expense of a horse beaten a nose in the Wood.

Another accident waiting to happen involves the UAE Derby on the Dubai World Cup undercard, a Group 2 race that offers a $2 million purse that may go up to $3 million in a year or two. A distant third-place finisher in that event would immediately qualify for the Derby off that effort alone.

The prep schedule is filled with examples of high and low purses that do not correspond either to the grades of races or their generally-accepted importance. You can't mandate that tracks standardize purses to match up to grades, but a point system rather than an earnings tally could effectively accomplish that - something like 9, 6, and 3 points for the first three finishers in a Grade 1 race, 6-4-2 for a Grade 2, and 3-2-1 for a Grade 3 would be more fair than the current earnings system. This also opens the possibility of weighting 3-year-old races more strongly than 2-year-old races instead of giving horses as much credit for irrelevant sprint performances eight months before post time as for routes in their final prep.

At first this might seem complicated, but it really is more straightforward than the earnings system, which is riddled with inequities not only in gross purses but in state-to-state variations on purse splits and added monies. A point system would actually simplify things.

An alternative supported by some is making the race wholly or partly invitational, with some sort of committee charged with selecting the field or at least its final members. Such a scheme is fraught with issues of fairness and objectivity. A point system where everyone knows the rules and requirements in advance seems vastly preferable.

Once the criteria for making the top 20 are straightened out, something needs to be done about the entry system, which currently does not allow for also-eligibles. The situation surrounding the filly Eight Belles in this year's field illustrates the need for change.

Her owner, Rick Porter, said this week that he plans to enter Eight Belles in both the Derby and the Oaks, and then make a decision where to run depending in part on the post positions he draws. His plan is entirely within the rules, but runs a strong chance of unnecessarily depriving a 20th horse from running in the Derby if he scratches her to run in the Oaks. Even if he decides two minutes after the Derby draw to run in the Oaks, there is no mechanism to allow someone to take her place.

Why not allow the entry of at least No. 21 and No. 22 (if not also a No. 23 and No. 24) as also-eligibles for exactly such situations? Tote systems can handle 24 entrants, which is how the Kentucky Derby Future Wager is set up. The field could be finalized Friday morning, in time for advance Derby betting. Churchill officials have said they are concerned about confusing bettors, but even once-a-year Derby customers understand the idea of a scratch and wouldn't be baffled by a 22- or 24-horse program with two or four scratches.

There are always going to be gripes and hard feelings surrounding the last horse excluded from the race. Changing the qualifying criteria, and allowing also-eligibles to fill an otherwise empty stall, can only soften the blow and make the process fairer.