04/04/2004 11:00PM

For a few dollars more: Derby spots

Castledale (left) wins the Santa Anita Derby, beating Rock Hard Ten (right), who was placed third for interference. The $60,000 difference in purse money could cost Rock Hard Ten a start in the Kentucky Derby.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The inconsistent outcome of this spring's stakes for 3-year-olds has resulted in scores of runners whose owners are desirous of running in the Kentucky Derby on May 1, but many are likely to not get in because of insufficient earnings in graded stakes.

More than 20 years ago, Churchill Downs put a cap of 20 runners on the Kentucky Derby, in an attempt to make a chaotic situation a bit more sane. This year, with favorites tanking and a new longshot winning seemingly every week, the list of potential starters has grown larger and opaque. If more than 20 runners enter the race, the field is determined by earnings in graded stakes races. With one round of significant prep races remaining, there are still several well-regarded runners who are in a precarious situation.

Most notable are Eddington and Smarty Jones. Eddington, who is scheduled to run in Saturday's $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, has a mere $20,000 in graded stakes earnings, so he must finish in at least one of the first two spots to be assured of a starting berth in the Kentucky Derby. Master David, Swingforthefences, and Tapit, who also are scheduled to run in the Wood, are also in need of additional graded stakes money.

The unbeaten Smarty Jones, who should be favored in Saturday's Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, has yet to race in a graded stakes race, so that account is bare. With a $1 million purse, the Arkansas Derby winner will have more than enough to get into the Kentucky Derby, but if Smarty Jones runs third or worse on Saturday, he could be in trouble.

As of Monday, the cutoff point with graded stakes earnings hovered around $100,000. There are several runners with more than that who are doubtful for the Derby - such as Saratoga County, St Averil, and the filly Madcap Escapade - which could open slots for horses slightly farther down the list.

Those who are done with their preps, however, could be leapfrogged by horses who race this weekend. Over the next few weeks, trainers and owners will have one eye on what their horses do on the track, another on the cash register.

One colt in a particularly dicey position is Rock Hard Ten. He crossed the wire second in Saturday's Santa Anita Derby, but was disqualified and placed third for interfering with Imperialism, the original third-place finisher, in the final sixteenth of a mile.

That disqualification was a $60,000 setback for Rock Hard Ten. He picked up $90,000 for finishing third, but would have earned $150,000 for second. The difference might very well keep him out of the Derby.

"It might make a difference," Jason Orman, the trainer of Rock Hard Ten, said Monday. "We have to hope the horses above us win more money this weekend. If any new horses win and go past us, we're in trouble. We're going to ship to Kentucky and see if he gets in."

The first five finishers in the Santa Anita Derby are all pointing for the Kentucky Derby. Even the sixth-place finisher St Averil has yet to be ruled out. "Probably his feet were bothering him more than we thought, and he probably bounced, too," said his trainer, Rafael Becerra. "We'll sit tight for a week or 10 days. We're going to X-ray his feet. Everything's still up in the air."

With form so utterly inconsistent this spring, the mindset seems to be that there's no reason not to try again.

"Somebody's going to win that race this year," said Bob Baffert, whose Louisiana Derby winner, Wimbledon, was fifth in the Santa Anita Derby. "I'm disappointed my horse didn't win, but it didn't change my opinion of him. He'd already punched his ticket to the Kentucky Derby after he won the Louisiana Derby."

Castledale, the 30-1 upset winner of the Santa Anita Derby, came out of the race well, but no timetable has been set on when he will ship to Churchill Downs, according to Frank Lyons, who owns the colt along with Greg Knee.

Castledale got a Beyer Speed Figure of 103.

Imperialism, placed second via disqualification, will leave for Kentucky on April 19, trainer Kristin Mulhall said Monday.

The fourth-place finisher, Quintons Gold Rush, is also headed to Kentucky, but will have an intermediate stop before the Derby in an attempt to gather enough earnings to make the race. He is being transferred to trainer Steve Asmussen, and will make his next start in the $325,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 17, according to Mike Mitchell, who trained Quintons Gold Rush for his first four starts. Quintons Gold Rush is scheduled to fly to Kentucky on Wednesday.

Also on that Wednesday flight will be Lion Heart and Preachinatthebar, who are scheduled to run in Saturday's $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Both worked on Monday morning at Santa Anita. Lion Heart sped five furlongs in 58.40 seconds, the best time of 63 at the distance. Preachinatthebar covered five furlongs in 59.20 seconds.

Action This Day, another West Coast colt who is scheduled to run in the Blue Grass, left California on Monday with his Richard Mandella-trained stablemate Minister Eric, who is pointing for the Lexington.

Last weekend's other key prep race was the Illinois Derby, which was won by Pollard's Vision. He earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 107, a career best.

Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Pollard's Vision, said the colt returned to Keeneland and would remain there "until hopefully we have a few others going to Churchill Downs." Pletcher on Saturday has Limehouse in the Blue Grass, Purge in the Arkansas Derby, and Value Plus in the Wood.

"Next Saturday is going to be a big day," he said.

Song of the Sword, who finished second in the Illinois Derby, and Suave, who was third, both are under consideration for the Derby. Song of the Sword is right on the bubble in terms of graded stakes earnings, but Suave's prospects are not as rosy.

In other Derby developments:

* Edgar Prado will ride Birdstone in the Blue Grass, trainer Nick Zito said.

* Zito is also seriously considering running The Cliff's Edge in the Blue Grass.

- additional reporting by David Grening and Mike Welsch