Updated on 09/17/2011 11:49PM

New math needed for Derby eligibility

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NEW YORK - Using graded-stakes earnings to determine eligibility for the Kentucky Derby may well be the best of a bad group of choices for determining the 20 who get to run.

It's better than gross earnings, which would unfairly reward the winners of statebred and restricted races or third-rate events with inflated purses. It's also preferable to getting a committee involved with inviting horses, an invitation to conflicts of interest and legal challenges. A committee system works for the Breeders' Cup because most runners in the oversubscribed races have copious and well-established form on which to base objective decisions. Do we really want a group of Kentucky racing officials or sportswriters deciding which of four lightly raced allowance winners most deserves to run for the roses?

The graded-earnings system, however, still has a number of glaring inequities that may come into play in a year when less than $27,000 separated the horses ranking 19th through 24th entering this weekend.

1. Purse differentials. Money trumps grade, an inherent contradiction to abiding by the grading system. It is inconsistent to say that Grade 3's count and ungraded stakes do not because of the Graded Stakes Committee's judgment, but then to value richer Grade 3's over supposedly better Grade 2's. The Grade 3 Rebel at $300,000 is richer than six of the 11 Grade 2 preps, and the Grade 3 Tampa Bay and El Camino Real derbies, worth $250,000 each, are richer than five of the 11 Grade 2's.

Nor is there any consistency within the grades. The Grade 3's offer purses ranging from $102,500 (Sham) to $300,000 (Rebel) and the Grade 2's are worth anywhere from $147,000 (San Rafael) to $1 million (Arkansas Derby).

2. Purse splits. Differences from state to state in how purse money is awarded causes different earnings for the same finishes even in races of identical grade and purse. Running third in the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby is worth $90,000, while a third in the Grade 1, $750,000 Wood or Blue Grass pays only $75,000. Yet fifth place was worth $22,500 in the Wood and Blue Grass but only $15,000 in the Santa Anita Derby.

3. Payouts to off-the-board finishers. Some tracks pay down to fifth, others to sixth, and still others pay something to every starter in a race. Flashy Bull got nothing for running seventh in the Florida Derby, while a sixth-place finish would have netted him $20,000. In the Wood Memorial, the sixth- through ninth-place finishers each received $3,750. Storm Treasure and Jazil each earned $150,000 for their respective seconds in the Blue Grass and Wood, their only on-the-board finish in a graded stakes, but Storm Treasure has slightly more in graded earnings because he was paid $5,000 for a dreadful sixth-place finish in the Tampa Bay Derby.

4. Juvenile vs. 3-year-old earnings. Graded earnings counts equally whether they are at six furlongs 11 months before the race or at nine furlongs three weeks out. And should the $1.5 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile last October really count twice as much as the Blue Grass, Santa Anita Derby, and Wood?

5. Foreign earnings. The UAE Derby, virtually a private race for horses owned and trained in Dubai, offers a $2 million purse that counts because the race has been accorded international Group 2 status. The first three finishers in the race are thus guaranteed a Derby berth if their owners want one. Canadian races pose a separate problem, because Canada withdrew from the American graded-stakes process and now grades its own races. Seaside Retreat has $100,000 in American graded stakes earnings for his second in the Lane's End, but jumps from 23rd to 19th on the current list because of the $25,807 he earned running third in the Grey Stakes at Woodbine last October.

The one somewhat radical change that would address several of these issues would be to switch from earnings to a point system, similar to the one used in the Breeders' Cup, that would value all races of the same grade equally regardless of purse. That would at least keep horses from being in or out of the Derby because of regional differences in purse splits or inflated purses for Grade 3 races. The point system could also be tweaked to count 3-year-old races more strongly than juvenile events and perhaps routes more than sprints.

Such a system is worth investigating for the long term because these inequities may well increase. The focus on earnings, because of the likelihood of ongoing oversubscribed Derby fields, is likely to lead to some erratic purse increases for existing graded events, and racino dollars are likely to create inflated ones. If a race such as the WinStar Derby gets Grade 3 status, it could become more important in determining Derby berths than Grade 1 and 2 events with much better fields, the way that the Grade 3 Delta Jackpot will next year.

In the meantime, Churchill Downs could make one small change that would eliminate the most glaring inequity in the current system - rewarding horses because of some tracks' insistence on paying purse money to distant also-rans in graded stakes. At the very least, the current graded-earnings rule should be amended to include only purse money earned in first- through fourth-place finishes.