04/18/2004 11:00PM

Good horses excluded by bad rule

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NEW YORK - There is no debate that if Eddington, a close third in the Wood Memorial, and Rock Hard Ten, who finished a narrowly beaten second in the Santa Anita Derby, ran in the Kentucky Derby a week from Saturday, they would be among the favorites in the betting. There should also be no debate that a system that would prevent Eddington and Rock Hard Ten from racing in an oversubscribed Derby does not work. Clearly, the system that is meant to identify the 20 best horses to start in an overfilled Derby is failing and needs to be replaced.

This system is the graded-stakes earnings provision, which limits the Kentucky Derby field to the 20 horses with the highest earnings in graded stakes races. Eddington and Rock Hard Ten are both on the wrong side of this line, and there isn't anything left for them to do about it. All they can hope for now is a handful of late defections to open up a starting spot.

The graded stakes earnings rule was born in 1988, replacing an earlier provision based on total earnings. The earlier rule was created in response to the 23-horse rodeo that passed for the centennial Kentucky Derby in 1974. As an aside, the 20-horse limit was actually breached once, in 1981, when a court ruled on the eve of the Derby that a coupled entry could run - horses of same ownership now race uncoupled - even if it meant that 21 horses would start.

Much has happened in Thoroughbred racing since the creation of the Derby's graded stakes earnings rule, not the least of which were drastic alterations in stakes schedules, major changes in stakes purses, and a shift in training philosophy that now finds Derby horses making substantially fewer starts before going to Louisville. All of this has rendered the graded stakes earnings rule obsolete.

One of the most frequently suggested changes is to eliminate or reduce the impact of earnings in 2-year-old graded stakes. Proponents of this change can make a good case this year. Action This Day, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner, ranks second on the graded stakes earnings list even though in his two graded stakes starts this year he finished seventh, beaten 9 1/2 lengths, and sixth, beaten 13 1/2 lengths. Minister Eric, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up, has always been guaranteed a starting slot in the Derby even though the only race he won this year was an entry-level allowance race, and despite the fact the Derby will be his first start in a stakes race this year. Birdstone, the Champagne Stakes winner, has a Derby spot even though he finished fifth, beaten almost 11 lengths, in his only graded stakes start this year. None of these would be even remotely close to Eddington or Rock Hard Ten in Derby betting if the those two were allowed to start.

But, it is frightening to look at the historic impact of eliminating 2-year-old graded stakes earnings from consideration. Derby winners Go for Gin (1994), Sea Hero (1993), Alysheba (1987), Spend a Buck (1985), and Genuine Risk (1980) could possibly have been excluded from the starting field had their races been oversubscribed. Even Secretariat in 1973 might have been on the bubble for a Derby start. Eliminating 2-year-old graded stakes earnings is too severe and unfairly penalizes horses for simply being precocious and demonstrating quality early.

Certainly the sport's biggest development on the track since the creation of the Derby's earnings rule was the advent of the Breeders' Cup. And the Breeders' Cup, which caps the size of its fields to 14 horses, has a rule dealing with oversubscribed races that Churchill Downs officials should take a hard look at as a potential replacement for their graded stakes earnings rule.

The Breeders' Cup awards automatic berths to seven horses in each race based on points earned in graded stakes. The amount of points earned depends on finishing first, second, or third in graded stakes, with Grade 1 events worth more points than Grade 2 races, and Grade 2 races worth more than Grade 3 events. The other seven starters are invited, based on the merits of their performance, by a selection committee composed of top racing officials. The committee then ranks also-eligibles in order of preference, but this would not work for the Derby, which does not use an also-eligible list so it can allow for advance wagering the day before the race.

The Breeders' Cup selection system is not perfect. I have criticized it because it treats all Grade 1 events as equal, and we know that a Grade 1 event open to older males is more difficult to win than a Grade 1 event restricted to 3-year-old fillies. But that is not an issue in the Derby. In the 20-year history of the Breeders' Cup, I can think of only one truly egregious mistake made by the selection committee, which was Quiet American's exclusion from the 1990 Classic. Only one such example over 20 years is a pretty good record.

With the Derby allowing 20 starters, there would have to be minor tinkering with the Breeders' Cup blueprint, whether it be 10 horses in on points and 10 invited, or 12 in on points and eight invited. But that's minor stuff. What isn't minor is when two horses such as Eddington and Rock Hard Ten - who are obviously among the best of their generation - want to compete in the Kentucky Derby and can't.