04/29/2009 12:00AM

Entree to Derby could use a new recipe

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NEW YORK - Churchill Downs dodged a bullet of its own design and discharge when the connections of the Kentucky Derby Challenge winner, Mafaaz, opted out of the run for the roses after the colt's eighth-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes. But for owner Hamdan al-Maktoum's recognition that discretion is the better part of valor, a more deserving horse like Summer Bird, third in the Arkansas Derby, might have been left out of the Derby lineup.

That peculiar set of circumstances, however, does not vindicate Churchill Downs's British win-and-you're-in scheme. Moreover, the Kentucky Derby pecking order as defined by lifetime graded stakes earnings leaves something to be desired. The current system is rife with inconsistencies, weighting as it does 2-year-old races equally with those of 3-year-olds long after some horses have left their juvenile form behind, while granting a race like the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby greater value than four major Grade 1 Derby preps, all of which are worth just $750,000. Or, more to the point, granting the Group 2, $2 million UAE Derby a significantly higher value than any of the domestic Grade 1 Derby preps.

Perhaps it is time for Churchill Downs Inc. to adopt a handicapping system to determine Derby starters.

In most other racing nations, among them Britain, Ireland, France, Australia, Hong Kong, and the United Arab Emirates, such systems are the bedrock of the sport. The one used in Britain best illustrates the many uses a handicapping system supports.

There, a horse qualifies for a handicap rating after its first win or after having run three times, whichever comes first. That rating is used primarily to determine the weight a horse will carry when it runs in a handicap, but it is also used to determine which horses will run in a race in which fields are limited to a maximum number of runners. The Epsom Derby is limited to 20 runners, and they are derived by the handicap ratings determined by the British Horseracing Board's chief handicapper.

Of course, it would be unfeasible to provide a handicap rating for every horse who has run three or more times in America. But it would be practicable to provide a handicap rating for every horse who has run in a graded stakes. Handicappers at our leading tracks are already members of the World Thoroughbred Rankings committee, which periodically issues international rankings as well as the annual ratings that determine global championships. That group of handicappers, aided by their colleagues at other key tracks, could easily expand its reach to include all graded race performers.

Not only would this system solve the problems we currently have in determining the Kentucky Derby field, it could also be used to set weights for those graded stakes that are handicaps, with the added value of putting an end to the truncated weights devised by local handicappers in an effort to attract the best horses with ridiculously low weights.

Moreover, such ratings could be used as a handicapping tool in graded races run under conditions or on a weight-for-age basis. A weekly update of the top 10 rated horses in each division would also make a good marketing tool in providing material for debate among horsemen and fans.

Absent such a system here, let us utilize the handicap ratings of the British racing daily, the Racing Post, to determine the Kentucky Derby field. The Racing Post Ratings are offered by Racing Post handicappers as an alternative to the official horse racing board ratings for use in handicapping races. They are based on precisely the same criteria as used by the racing board.

Using Racing Post Ratings, we find that two horses with higher graded race earnings, Flying Private and Mine That Bird - a horse whose victory in Woodbine's Grey Stakes is worth no more than Mafaaz's in the Kentucky Derby Challenge - make the Derby field ahead of four horses with superior ratings: Take the Points, Just a Coincidence, Atomic Rain, and Join in the Dance. Using Beyer Speed Figures - which are admittedly not a handicap rating - as a yardstick reveals an even greater number of worthy candidates bumped out of the Derby field by horses with higher graded race earnings.

Ultimately, if you are a Racing Post man, Friesan Fire is your selection. If you like best Beyers, take Quality Road or I Want Revenge. I'll go with Dunkirk, a horse who had his back to the Derby wall until the withdrawals of Mafaaz and Giant Oak and injuries to Old Fashioned and The Pamplemousse enabled him to escape from the dreaded waiting list.