04/10/2003 11:00PM

Oaks futures: Nice try

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NEW YORK - Churchill Downs deserves credit for devising and offering parimutuel futures wagering on the Kentucky Derby. Now in their fourth year, the three pools each spring offer interesting propositions and, while together they attract less than $1 million, they are an effective marketing tool in raising early consciousness about the 3-year-olds.

It's understandable that Churchill took a flier this year and tried the same thing with the Kentucky Oaks, its second-biggest race. The bet attracted only $117,368, but that is the least of the reasons why Churchill should think long and hard before renewing the wager for next year.

Churchill's management would like to think that the Oaks is to 3-year-old fillies what the Derby is to 3-year-old colts, but it just isn't. While the race attracts a huge crowd as part of a Louisville tradition where Oaks Day is virtually a local holiday, the race does not necessarily draw the cream of the division and is not part of an organized triple crown series.

That makes it a poor candidate for futures betting compared to the Derby and the Breeders' Cup, whose prestige ensure that every able-bodied leading contender will be pointed for those races. The differences were glaring this year.

Storm Flag Flying was the 7-2 favorite after attracting $20,128 in the pool, but it's uncertain at best whether she will even run in the Oaks. She had not made her seasonal debut by the time the pool closed, and no one will be surprised if she instead stays in New York for the Mother Goose, Coaching Club American Oaks, and Alabama, a series that offers a $2 million bonus this year.

Danuta, Godolphin's interesting Sunday Silence filly, was the third choice early in the betting off an impressive victory in Dubai, but even as the pool was being conducted, a Godolphin spokesman was saying on Churchill's website that Danuta was doubtful for the race. Yet betting remained available on her for another two days, and $5,995 was collected on her as she floated to 15-1.

There are similar opportunities to tear up your tickets in Derby futures, but there is a fundamental difference. Fit and ready favorites are not held out of the Kentucky Derby because there are richer and equally prestigious opportunities available elsewhere.

The Oaks is a wonderful race and event but it isn't the equivalent of the Derby. Fans don't think "Oaks!" when they see an impressive 2-year-old filly the way they smell Derby roses when a 2-year-old colt looks like something special. They don't spend the winter and spring watching Oaks preps and debating the merits of the leading contenders.

Oaks futures were an interesting experiment, but they revealed inherent problems that are not going to disappear anytime soon. Whatever resources Churchill expended on them might be better spent in the years ahead on improving the Derby futures, and by getting more tracks and wagering outlets to display the odds and promote the bet.

Derby culling needs adjustment

Another item for consideration by Churchill is whether it's time to do something about the rule that Derby eligibility in the case of an overflow number of prospective entrants should be determined solely by earnings in graded stakes. It is a disaster waiting to happen.

Fortunately, Dynever's connections have always planned to pass the Derby. He's on anybody's list of the nation's top 10 3-year-olds after his impressive victory in Gulfstream's $250,000 Aventura Stakes April 5, but he has $0 in graded earnings. The only sure thing on Derby Day is that at least half the field will consist of less-talented and less-accomplished horses who picked up graded earnings in 2-year-old sprints and foreign events or with distant third- and fourth-place finishes in major preps.

The Breeders' Cup system, which awards most starting berths by graded stakes performance but also has a selection panel to invite the Dynevers of the world, is preferable and has become widely accepted for those races. Yet racing fans and officials seem to have a double standard and find this introduction of a subjective element intolerable for the Derby.

If we're stuck with this system, let's at least clean it up. Foreign races such as the UAE Derby should be reexamined for eligibility purposes - why should the fourth-best Godolphin horse in Dubai get a Derby berth because his owners put up a $2 million purse for an intramural race among their own horses?

Also, the Graded Stakes Committee needs to pick up its glacial pace of recognizing the changing realities of racing and, in some cases, correcting its own mistakes.

When Trust N Luck whipped Supah Blitz in the Fountain of Youth in February, it was a Grade 1 race. When Dynever whipped Supah Blitz to win the Aventura, it was an ungraded race. It should take several minutes rather than several years to downgrade the Fountain of Youth to a Grade 2 and upgrade the Aventura to a Grade 3, and it should have been done a year ago.