04/19/2002 12:00AM

Let's be fair, but how?


NEW YORK - If more than 20 horses are entered for the May 4 Kentucky Derby, only the 20 with the highest career earnings in graded stakes races will be allowed to start. Is this the best way to decide who gets to run in the nation's premier horse race?

It's a question that luckily does not present itself too often, because every year it looks for a while as if there is going to be a limit field, but then there rarely is. We've had 19 go to the gate five times in the last decade but you have to go back to Swale's Derby in 1984 to find a full field of 20.

That luck may well run out this year, though, and current trends in the sport suggest a future of constant overflow fields. Increasing foreign interest in the Derby has presented a whole new cast of candidates for the race, and the increasing prevalence of less-is-more prep campaigns is keeping the bloom on horses longer; it's a lot easier to think a horse is a legitimate Derby candidate if he's had four promising races than if he's run a dozen times and proved conclusively that he doesn't belong.

So are graded-stakes earnings the proper criterion? While no clearly superior cutoff system immediately suggests itself, there are enough drawbacks that alternatives should be considered.

Using earnings from graded stakes is clearly preferable to using gross career earnings, as it focuses on quality and downplays the inflated purses of regional futurities and statebred events. Few would argue that among $100,000 races, the Nashua and the Iroquois should count for more than the Copper Top Futurity, the Sleepy Hollow, or the Hoosier Juvenile.

On the other hand, not all graded stakes are created equal, and purse size does not necessarily reflect quality or relevant distance and surface conditions. Should early-season graded juvenile races such as the Flash or the Bashford Manor turn out to be as important as solid sophomore races like the Swale or the Rebel just because the purses are similar? Should earnings in grass races count at all? Does the $1 million purse of the Florida Derby make it 33 percent more important than the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, Wood, or Blue Grass?

Foreign races pose a whole new set of problems. The UAE Derby in Dubai carries a $2 million purse, which is why Essence of Dubai tops the current earnings list at $1.3 million. It is also why the Maktoums could qualify the first four finishers in that race for the Derby every year even if it is nothing but an intramural contest among their own runners.

It is difficult to imagine a system that could fairly address all these issues unless the Derby goes the way of the Breeders' Cup and introduces human judgment into the equation. The Breeders' Cup uses a graded-stakes point system rather than earnings (which would be fine for the Derby except for glaring inconsistencies within the grades, such as the Grade 1 status of the Fountain of Youth), but it also reserves several berths for invitees - horses without sufficient points who, in the judgment of racing officials, clearly belong in the race.

If invitees make sense for the Breeders' Cup, why not the Derby? Such a provision would address the current case of Sunday Break, who is in just about everyone's Derby top 10 but sits 26th on the earnings list after being beaten less than a length in what may have been the best prep of the spring, the Wood. If he doesn't get into the Derby, his handlers can only blame themselves for not playing the game under the existing rules - they could have run him in any number of pre-Wood stakes instead of an allowance race at Aqueduct. Still, without a provision for human intervention, even worse scenarios are possible.

Suppose that Sunday Break, or Buddha, or some other horse making his stakes debut, were to win the Wood or the Blue Grass by 12 lengths in track-record time, stamping himself the heavy Derby favorite and a legitimate Triple Crown possibility, but then be disqualified and placed seventh for bumping some 90-1 shot at the start? The most talented colt in the country could be sitting in 33rd place on the earnings list with no way in.

Introducing opinionated invitations into the process has inherent pitfalls and some ugly worst-case scenarios of its own - what happens if Churchill Downs officials have to award the 20th spot to either a horse owned by one of its board members or a Frank Stronach runner? Still, it may be worth those risks rather than hewing to a system that could keep the best 3-year-old in America out of the Derby at the expense of the fourth-best 3-year-old in Dubai.