04/22/2007 11:00PM

Derby's earnings rule overdue for change


NEW YORK - With reasonably sized Kentucky Derby fields having gone the way of the dodo, and with more than 20 3-year-olds eyeing this year's race a week from Saturday, the graded stakes earnings clause that Churchill Downs employs to limit the field to 20 has once again assumed a bigger role than it deserves for the most popular horse race in America.

Not long after 23 horses competed in the 100th Kentucky Derby in 1974, overall earnings - and eventually graded earnings - were used to limit the field, and there were few complaints. Despite the size of the 1974 race, Derby field sizes were generally at manageable levels. The clause came about in an era when stakes purses were pretty much consistent year to year and horsemen appeared to be a bit more realistic about the chances of winning the Derby.

Obviously, times have changed. The attraction of merely competing in the Derby has become almost irresistible. Whether a horse can be competitive sometimes seems secondary to the potential ego gratification or residual publicity benefits for owners that a mere starter in the Derby might provide.

Then there is the matter of purse values for graded Derby prep races. When the earnings clause was created, not only were the values of stakes races fairly constant, but the purses were remarkably reflective of the actual quality of the race. Not anymore. Racetracks are essentially free to raise (and lower) the purses of Derby preps at their whim. We have already seen with the $2 million UAE Derby the effect that a mountain of money can have on a graded Derby prep. It may not be long before we witness the effect slots money might have. It's not hard to envision a day in the not-too-distant future when, after New York racing finally sees the financial benefits of video lottery terminals, the purse of the Wood Memorial rises to $2 million - more than twice that of the Santa Anita Derby and Blue Grass. Although the Wood has a great history, it will never be twice as important a Derby prep than either the Santa Anita Derby or Blue Grass.

With the graded stakes earnings clause coming into play almost every year now, it follows that there will be Derby aspirants worthy of competing who will be excluded. This year's poster boy for change in the graded earnings clause is Chelokee. Chelokee made his first stakes start last time out in the Grade 1 Florida Derby, in which he finished third, beaten two lengths. But Chelokee had serious trouble, getting shut off on the rail at the top of the stretch while moving strongly. Were it not for that trouble, Chelokee almost certainly would have finished second, and he might have won. First or second money would have put Chelokee squarely in the starting field for the Kentucky Derby. Now, he is on the outside looking in behind such possible starters as Xchanger, who hasn't earned a cent of graded stakes money this year; Sedgefield, who has never started on conventional dirt; and Imawildandcrazyguy, who was sixth behind Chelokee in the Florida Derby.

Some people might say that although he is unlucky to be in the position he is in, Chelokee really hasn't "earned" his way into the Kentucky Derby. They might say that his connections should have hurried him and started him in a graded stakes before the Florida Derby, or even have run him in one of the graded stakes in the five weeks between the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby. They wouldn't necessarily be wrong. But it seems to be an injustice when a horse like Chelokee could be denied the opportunity to start in the Kentucky Derby when, by most measures of ability, he has more of a license to compete than several others ahead of him on the graded earnings list. This violates the spirit of the Kentucky Derby, and even the spirit of the graded clause itself, which was instituted to ensure that the best horses would start.

Many racing pundits have contended for years that the graded earnings clause is obsolete and offered suggestions for improvement. One is to go to a point system where points are earned for finishing first, second, or third in graded Derby preps. This point system is appealing because it is not susceptible to fluctuating purse values. However, any point system must include a graduated point value reflective of race grade, because we all know Grade 1 preps are stronger than Grade 3 preps.

Or, if for some reason Churchill Downs was wedded to using graded purse money as a determining factor, an emphasis should be placed on 3-year-old earnings by devaluing 2-year-old earnings. No matter what happens in this Derby, there has been an increasing disconnect between 2-year-old form and the Derby. Besides, why should the results of races run six months earlier carry the same weight as races run within the last six weeks?

Sure, change might require a little extra bookkeeping. But change needs to be made to avoid future Chelokee-type situations. And the reason for doing that is simple: This Derby just won't be as strong without Chelokee as it would be with him.