03/13/2009 12:00AM

Minor race worth a Derby berth


It's difficult what to make of the the first running of the Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes at Kempton Park on Wednesday.

Contested at 1 1/8 miles on a Polytrack surface in England, it's actually an allowance, one that will be run under the lights and on a right-handed track. The winner gets an automatic place in the Kentucky Derby lineup, which means a more deserving American horse might get bumped.

The Kentucky Derby Challenge, which will go off at 3:50 p.m. Eastern, is a product of a marriage between the marketing departments of Churchill Downs and Kempton Park, the track considered "London's racecourse," located just 18 miles from the capital in Sunbury-on-Thames. Founded in 1878, Kempton has always been better known as a venue for jump racing.

Flat racing on turf was limited to 12 or 13 days a year until 2006 when a Polytrack oval was laid inside the jumps course, thus enabling Kempton to increase its number of flat racing dates to 60, the majority of them at night. The flat track's two major events, the Group 3, 1 1/2-mile September Stakes and the Group 3, six-furlong Sirenia Stakes - from which Square Eddie vaulted from second place to win Keeneland's Breeders Futurity last year - were switched to the new surface. Along with Lingfield Park's Winter Derby, they are the only group races run on synthetic surfaces in Europe.

The quality of Polytrack racing during the winter, when almost all of Britain's best horses are resting, is generally low-end stuff. Wednesday night's card, which will include the listed Dragonfly Stakes, will be a bit better. The Derby Challenge itself, although officially an allowance race, should be up to listed-race quality.

The main Kempton Polytrack is 1 1/4 miles around, but there is an inner loop that forms a one-mile course. The Derby Challenge will be run on that inner loop, which forms a level oval with a stretch that is just short of 2 1/2 furlongs.

Races run at 1 1/8 miles have a relatively short run to the first turn, so horses drawn wide in the Derby Challenge, which will be limited to a field of 14, will be at a slight disadvantage. Keep in mind, however, that the stretch at Kempton is nearly a furlong longer than at Monmouth Park or Santa Anita, for example, so horses have plenty of time to find a late path.

The $112,000 Derby Challenge attracted 23 nominations. Should the winner travel to the Derby, his owner will receive an additional 100,000 pounds, or about $140,000, more than enough to cover the costs of an expensive week in Louisville.

Trainer John Gosden has stated that his Juddmonte-owned son of Gone West, Close Alliance, the winner of a one-mile Polytrack maiden at Great Leighs in his lone outing on Oct. 9, is a definite starter. Gosden turned down an invitation to run him in the $2 million UAE Derby on March 28 in favor of the Derby Challenge. Aidan O'Brien has nominated two, Born to Be King and Grand Admiral, a Polytrack winner at Dundalk. Haashed, winner on the Lingfield Polytrack in his only start on Nov. 24, has been nominated by Mark Johnston.

Final entries will be drawn on Monday. Daily Racing Form will carry past performances for Wednesday's entire Kempton card. Wagering will be available at outlets throughout the United States, while the races can be seen on HRTV. First post is 2:50 p.m. Eastern.