03/26/2009 11:00PM

Racing's Catch-22 bedevils Sunland Derby


ARCADIA, Calif. - The good folks at Sunland Park have tried just about everything possible to attract the type of field that will cause their Sunland Derby to be recognized by the American Graded Stakes Committee.

Over its seven runnings, the purse has been cranked up to keep pace with the major Kentucky Derby preps, to an all-time high of $800,000 for this year's running on Sunday.

In addition, for the 2009 running, a bonus scheme was attached that offered any Grade 1 race winner an extra $200,000 on top of the $400,000 win purse. That didn't work. But a horse with any kind of graded earnings is in for a $100,000 bump if he can take the race, and four of the 12 entrants qualify.

The distance of the race has been shifted the last few years from 1 1/16 miles to 1 1/8 miles, putting it on a par with other major Kentucky Derby preps, and more recently they deployed the catchphrase "Real money, real dirt" to separate the Sunland Derby from the synthetic surface Kentucky Derby preps at Santa Anita, Keeneland, and Turfway Park.

Sunland even tried ponying up the price of a live ESPN racing broadcast, figuring the attention might help lure top talent. The result? Kenny Mayne and Kurt Hoover had a great weekend.

Owners, trainers, and jockeys from both coasts have been courted, and this year they've truly heeded the call. Among those represented in Sunday's field are Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen, Bob Baffert, Doug O'Neill, WinStar Farm, Mike Pegram, Paul Reddam, John Velazquez, Garrett Gomez, Corey Nakatani, David Flores, Victor Espinoza, and Mike Smith.

Unfortunately, those headline stables usually send their third- or fourth-string 3-year-olds to Sunland's isolated corner of the racing world, so unless this year's top three finishers in the Sunland Derby go on to do spectacular things, it is unlikely that the Graded Stakes Committee will budge. And as long as the Sunland Derby dangles out there without graded status, the top tier of Kentucky Derby prospects will be pointed elsewhere in the quest for sufficient graded race earnings to make the Kentucky Derby field.

Mr. Chicken, meet Mr. Egg.

Owner Stan Fulton and the rest of his Sunland Park team look upon the whole ordeal as a slap in the face, and they have a right. If the $750,000 Delta Jackpot Stakes, contested at night in December around a bullring in bayou country, can walk around with Grade 3 bragging rights, the Sunland Derby - the biggest race in a state with a healthy, casino-backed Thoroughbred breeding and racing industry - deserves no less.

Of course, if they asked me, I would tell the Sunland people to forget about the graded race scam and just enjoy your fine little derby. Worrying over the grading of a race only perpetuates the deeply flawed process of grading races at all, along with the curious uses to which the Graded Race System has been put - like determining entrants for the Kentucky Derby.

Anyway, if it wasn't good enough that a Sunland Derby winner went on to win a Breeders' Cup event (Thor's Echo), then chances are things won't change as long as the race must compete with its graded cousins in the spring.

Dustin Dix, Sunland's racing director, braved the annual Graded Stakes Committee meeting a couple years ago to make the case for the derby. After being blindfolded and driven around central Kentucky for several hours, he was led into the secure and undisclosed AGSC underground compound and allowed to witness their deliberations.

"It didn't go very well," Dix said. "Basically they go through a list and say, 'Are there any races we need to grade or to downgrade?' After they said no to the Sunland Derby, I spoke up. I didn't have the floor, but they heard me."

Dix is lucky he got out alive.

"It's so discouraging," Dix added. "The first few years, they kept saying, 'Let's give it another year.' This is our seventh running, and it's by far the best and deepest field we've ever had. I don't think we can attract any better horses without it being graded."

Bill Casner, whose WinStar Farm sponsored the Sunland Derby until this year, has some advice. First, there is the four-legged kind named Advice, a son of Chapel Royal who was just a neck away from making last summer's Arlington-Washington Futurity a triple dead heat. He will be making his second start of the year in the Sunland Derby for WinStar and Todd Pletcher, after a solid allowance prep at Santa Anita in February. As for Sunland's quest to attain graded status: "The timing of the race is the biggest obstacle," said Casner, who was in Dubai awaiting Well Armed's try in the World Cup. "If they would move the race to the fall, perhaps their opening weekend, I think as one of the last 3-year-old races of the year it would become graded very quickly.

"But as long as they want to have a race on the Derby trail," Casner added, "even though you're running for $800,000, the multiple on a Kentucky Derby winner is so much more that the top ones will be scrambling elsewhere for graded earnings."

Which is to say that to get the job you need experience, but you can't get experience without the job. There will be about 15,000 people at Sunland on Sunday, enjoying the best cast of racing characters $800,000 can buy. The derby may be ungraded, but at least it's not unloved.