03/30/2009 12:00AM

Dunkirk's plight dictates rules must change


NEW YORK - It was bound to happen.

For years, some of us have warned that the inefficiencies of the graded stakes earnings clause Churchill Downs employs to cap the starting field in the Kentucky Derby at 20 would eventually deny a top 3-year-old his once-in-a-lifetime chance of competing in this country's most famous horse race.

Despite the first loss of his brief career in Saturday's Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, Dunkirk is one of the top five 3-year-olds in the country. Perhaps, along with Florida Derby winner Quality Road, he's one of the nation's top two 3-year-olds. But there is a very strong chance that the $150,000 Dunkirk earned for finishing second Saturday, all he has in graded earnings, will not be enough to ensure him a starting berth in the Kentucky Derby should more than 20 enter, which appears likely.

Right now, Dunkirk is right on the edge in terms of graded stakes earnings. Sure, his situation could improve depending on what happens with the 19 or 20 currently in line in front of him. Equally likely, Dunkirk's situation could get much worse, depending on how much of the more than $4 million in graded money six or seven of those behind him pick up in the next few weeks.

This wouldn't be an issue if Dunkirk wasn't far more worthy than most of a start in the Derby. Yes, Quality Road finished 1 3/4 lengths in front of Dunkirk, but Dunkirk ran every bit as well. On a track that was lightning fast and playing toward speed (no one farther than two lengths back at the first call of a dirt race won on Saturday's Gulfstream card), Dunkirk was seven or eight lengths back in the initial stages behind a pace that proved to be moderate.

Despite those handicaps, Dunkirk made an electrifying five-wide rush around the far turn in an attempt to overwhelm Quality Road. The tactic didn't quite work. But the fact that Dunkirk was making only the third start of his career and spotting Quality Road one race worth of experience strongly suggests there is hardly anything between these two colts.

And that says a lot. The way Quality Road, in his first attempt around two turns, withstood going from a pull to a drive to absorb Dunkirk's bold assault late on the far turn was most impressive. To many, this performance, combined with his brilliant score in the Fountain of Youth, has made Quality Road the current Kentucky Derby favorite.

The trouble is, all the respect in the world does little for Dunkirk right now. He's going to need help to get into the Derby. Of course, there are those who will have little sympathy for him. They will say that Dunkirk's connections knew the rules going in, they knew approximately how much graded earnings would be needed to ensure a berth in the Derby, and should have adjusted their colt's schedule accordingly. But here's what defenders of the graded earnings rule are missing. By virtue of awarding a starting berth to the winner of a virtual allowance race on Polytrack in England, even Churchill Downs has demonstrated that the graded earnings clause is no longer untouchable as the ultimate determining factor to capping the Derby field at 20.

So now, the track should take advantage of the opportunity it created, and bring the graded earnings clause into the 21st century.

For one, it's ridiculous that the graded earnings clause sees no distinction between the Delta Jackpot, run the first week of December, and the Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby, or Blue Grass just because all are $750,000 races.

It makes much more sense that a premium be placed on 3-year-old form, especially with today's horsemen running their best prospects less frequently. And the way to do that is to devalue 2-year-old graded earnings, perhaps by 50 percent.

Why stop there? We all know that in the real world, 3-year-old filly races and 3-year-old turf races are nowhere near as strong as open 3-year-old main-track races. Filly graded earnings and turf graded earnings should also be devalued. You will see what a good idea this is when the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf eventually earns graded race status.

Of course, Churchill could really do it up right. It could acknowledge the inherent imbalance of stakes purses, as epitomized by the $2 million UAE Derby, and abandon the graded stakes earnings clause altogether for a points system. Derby aspirants would earn points for finishing first, second, or third in graded stakes, with a sliding points scale determined by race grade (Grade 1 races would offer more points than Grade 2 races, etc.), whether the race was restricted to fillies or run on turf, or if it was a 2-year-old race. Such a point system would have to make sure that a second like Dunkirk's in the Grade 1 Florida Derby would be more valuable than a win in a Grade 2 sprint for 2-year-olds.

All of this might be too late for Dunkirk. But if Dunkirk is denied a spot in the Derby, then this Derby will simply not be the race it ought to be. And that should be impetus for change.