03/23/2012 1:45PM

Hovdey: Even $800,000 can’t always buy the best

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Lisa Dominguez/Coady Photography
Endorsement wins the 2010 Sunland Park Derby, the first year the race was run as a Grade 3 event.

He said it and nailed it on the nose.

“Eight hundred thousand isn’t what it used to be,” insisted Dustin Dix, Sunland Park director of racing operations and the man who put together the $800,000 Sunland Derby, to be run Sunday at Sunland Park.

That’s a lot of sun, true, but it’s green and gold that shimmers this time of year in American racing, when making it into the field for the Kentucky Derby by earnings from graded races becomes the obsession of most owners and many trainers , an obsession abetted by every member of the media who hopes to have their Top 10 tweeted ad infinitum.

Sunland Park officials were on bended knee for years in an effort to acquire a Grade 3 ranking for its Derby. Stan Fulton, the man behind the track’s resurrection, wanted to hear the Sunland brand mentioned in Kentucky Derby conversations and was willing to keep funding the local Derby purse if that’s what it took, though not for what was beginning to seem like forever.

Forever finally came in 2010, when the Sunland Derby was admitted into the company of graded events.

“Before, stables like Baffert and Asmussen were bringing their horses that didn’t have Triple Crown aspirations,” Dix said. “Now they’re bringing their better stock, horses they hope to get into the Derby.”

The Sunland Derby purse sticks out on the Sunland schedule, like the giant cross atop nearby Mount Cristo Rey. The next richest race is the $200,000 Sunland Oaks, also run Sunday. Dix was asked if the eight hundred large he’s putting up this time around has paid off with the field of eight assembled.

“Depends on who you ask,” Dix replied. “We thought we’d get more horses from New York and Florida, with the standout 3-year-olds committed to running in those races. So we’re a little disappointed with that. We really thought with Hansen and Union Rags in the East, we thought we’d get horses who’d want to come here for the graded earnings.”

Of the eight in the Sunland Derby, two are Grade 3 stakes winners. Dix chooses to see the cup as more than a quarter full.

“There’s still some unfamiliarity with our track,” Dix said. “Once they’ve been here once, they’re more apt to come back. But there might be some concern about the distance of the ship, and I’d think they’d get pressure from where they’re stabled to run there instead of ship. In the past, we’ve had fields of 10 and 12, but a lot of them hadn’t gone on to do much. We expect the majority of Sunday’s field to go on and be successful.”

On its face, such an expression is very kind of Dix, to wish his Derby runners well long after they’ve had their fling with Sunland Park. He is only being pragmatic, though. The spectre of the graded race system hovers above the Sunland Park Derby like a threatening cloud. In the retroactive calculus of the system, a race is judged not only by what its participants bring to the party, but also by what they go on to accomplish.

It helps Sunland’s cause that last year the Sunland Derby runner-up Astrology went on to finish third in the Preakness, and that Ruler On Ice, third at Sunland, upset the Belmont. Still, the process by which races are graded leads downs any number of intellectual cul-de-sacs, not the least of those being the idea that, depending on what Sunday’s Sunland Park Derby runners do in the future, Sunday’s race may not really be Grade 3 in quality after all. Go figure.

The collusion between the Graded Race System (sponsored by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association) and the Kentucky Derby (presented by Yum!Brands) has become deep and abiding. To deal with one, you must answer to the other. If an owner wants to run in the Derby, they must first run in races that qualify for Derby eligibility earnings. This has resulted in a purse war among racetracks that has distorted the first five months of the racing season beyond all logic.

Kentucky horsemen can stroll down the road and run for $750,000 in the Blue Grass. Out West, there is $750,000 on the table for the Santa Anita Derby. And then there’s the Big Four, each offering a purse of a million dollars: the Louisiana Derby, the Arkansas Derby, the Florida Derby, and the Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial.

“Money doesn’t always tell the story,” said Rick Hammerle, Santa Anita’s director of racing. “I’m not saying money doesn’t matter. But the real serious guys out here who have planned on the Derby for a long time, who want to give their horse the best, toughest racing to get ready – they run in the Santa Anita Derby.”

Even at Sunland’s $800,000, Dix can feel his leverage slipping away in the face of rising purse competition. The pressure to keep the level high to draw decent horses is intense, but at least the system lends a hand.

“With these million-dollar prep races everywhere you’re probably going to need $250,000 in graded earnings to get in the Derby,” Dix pointed out.

If nothing else, the Sunland Derby – no matter what the purse – offers an excuse for a good party. The race, which began life as the WinStar Derby in 2003, is celebrating it’s 10th running, and the meet, which began in December, has been doing well.

“The numbers so far this year have been up slightly,” Dix said. “Any time you can say that in this economy, I think that’s a victory. We’re gearing up for 18,000 to 20,000 people on Sunday, and it will be wall-to-wall. To have that many people at a racetrack these days is special.”