05/12/2002 11:00PM

It's time to revise Derby entry system

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NEW YORK - The Kentucky Derby has been around since 1875. The Breeders' Cup has only been on the scene since 1984. But I think the young whippersnapper can teach a thing or two to the old veteran.

It became clear in the days leading up to this year's Kentucky Derby that there are problems with the entry procedures and the system of using graded stakes earnings to select the starting field of 20. Perhaps Churchill Downs should look to the model constructed by the Breeders' Cup.

The entry procedures became an issue when Danthebluegrassman was a surprise last-minute entrant. Even though Danthebluegrassman was subsequently withdrawn on Derby morning, he knocked Windward Passage out of the Derby at entry time because he had more graded stakes earnings.

The connections of Danthebluegrassman didn't break any rules by springing the surprise. But you could argue that the secret nature of the colt's status was unfair to the betting public. The public has a right to know if a colt like Danthebluegrassman is even a remote candidate - especially in a race like the Derby - because the public makes this game go with the money it pushes through the mutuel windows.

The answer could be instituting a Kentucky Derby pre-entry stage, much like the pre-entry process for the Breeders' Cup. A Derby pre-entry stage should close the Wednesday before Derby week, or one week before final Derby entries are taken. At that point, the owners of any 3-year-old, including those who would have to be supplemented to the Derby at a cost of $150,000, would have to declare their intentions. There would be no further additions to the list. If a few of the Derby pre-entries become ill or injured, they would simply drop out of the picture.

A pre-entry stage would come before the running of the Derby Trial, which is always run a week before the Derby. But it has been a long time since the Derby Trial has been a truly meaningful prep for the Derby. And if the connections of any horse pointing to the Derby Trial were entertaining any thoughts of wheeling back in the Derby, they would have to pre-enter too.

Such a procedure may not necessarily eliminate the possibility of owners enduring the needless embarrassment the connections of Windward Passage suffered the Wednesday afternoon before this Derby, but at least everyone will know where they stand a week and a half out. I would think there could also be some public relations benefit to such a system. Ten days before Derby Day, the whole world will know exactly who is intended for the Derby. Here's your list of firm Derby candidates. Run with it.

Using graded stakes earnings to select the Derby field of 20 starters has an inherent weakness. Graded stakes purses are not static. One year the Florida Derby is worth $750,000, the next it's worth $1 million. One year the Santa Anita Derby is worth $1 million, and then it's worth $750,000. The purse of the UAE Derby is $2 million, after being $500,000 two years ago.

A point system based on graded stakes performances would be a step in the right direction. The grades of stakes races, while not perfect, tend to fluctuate much less than purse money. Even a graded stakes point system, however could have holes. For example, most would agree that on merit, Sunday Break, who was a close third in the deepest Derby prep run this year, the Wood Memorial, deserved to start in the Derby more than It'sallinthechase, the rank outsider in the Derby field at 94-1. But a point system would probably not have put Sunday Break, who had one third in one Grade 1 race, ahead of It'sallinthechase, who managed a second and third in two Grade 2 races.

The World Thoroughbred Championships limits its race fields to 14 starters, with seven horses gaining automatic berths based on points and the other seven selected into the field by an international panel of racing secretaries and handicappers. This process isn't infallible. Once in a while, there is controversy when a horse with merit is excluded from a Breeders' Cup race. But for the most part, this system reflects reality.

I don't think that a 50-50 blend of horses qualifying on points to invitees is necessarily right for the Derby. Maybe in oversubscribed Derbies, 15 should automatically start on points and five on the recommendation of a blue ribbon racing panel.

Perhaps management at Churchill Downs should take a hard look at what the World Thoroughbred Championships does with its overfilled races and entry procedures. After all, we all want the strongest field possible in the Derby every year.

With no surprises.