02/20/2009 1:00AM

Spa bash gives way in nod to hard times


NEW YORK - If bank failures, staggering job losses, and government bailouts haven't made it clear we're living in dire economic times, perhaps this will: The annual Marylou Whitney Gala in Saratoga Springs this August has been canceled.

The Gala, held all but one year since 1959, was not only an annual snapshot of opulence in the world of Thoroughbred racing but also a stark illustration of class and income disparity in a small corner of American life. Each year, townspeople crowded behind barricades outside the Canfield Casino in Congress Park to watch and cheer the emergence of tuxedoed guests from luxury vehicles.

The crowning moment was the arrival of the bejeweled hostess, by rickshaw or camel or horse-drawn carriage depending on that year's party theme. Even in the most prosperous of times, the whole event always had a Depression-era feel to it, like one of those 1930's screwball comedies where heiresses mix it up with hoboes in a riverside shantytown lit by trash-can fires. No one found it objectionable, given the Whitney family's extensive philanthropy and investment in the area, and the adoring townsfolk came armed with cameras, not pitchforks.

Last Thursday, however, Mrs. Whitney and her husband, John Hendrickson, announced that the event has been suspended for 2009. It's not that the well has run dry or that the family is shopping in bulk at Wal-Mart, but that the spectacle might seem a tad tone-deaf this particular year.

"We felt we need to be sensitive to what's going on with the economy," Hendrickson told The Saratogian newspaper. "In light of the downturn, we thought it would be in poor taste to do an extravagant party."

The decision, which was front-page news from Albany to Lake George, was more complex than it might seem. Numerous letters to the editor and Internet posts have criticized the move, saying that the event is a boost to the local economy and should be made into a charitable event to seem more palatable in the current climate. Hendrickson countered that this would probably only tighten an expected pinch on other charity-driven events during the Saratoga season. One of the emerging subplots of the current economic crisis is an anticipated falloff in charitable giving.

That falloff won't come from the hosts of the Gala, who say they will get even more involved in the unsung racetrack programs they have been quietly supporting, such as one that has provided movie nights and more than 6,000 Sunday dinners for backstretch workers and their families.

Derby picture cloudy for sharp-looking colt

After Dunkirk won his second career start impressively at Gulfstream Park Thursday, looping the field to win by nearly five lengths and earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 98, the colt immediately zoomed to the forefront of many a top-10 list of Kentucky Derby prospects. There's still a pretty big question about whether he will even be able to get into the race, however, in a year where available starting berths may be even tighter than ever.

As every schoolchild knows, the Derby is limited to the 20 entrants with the highest career earnings in graded stakes races. That number already has been reduced to 19 this year because of the controversial foreign-aid program under which the winner of an obscure synthetic-track race in England next month gets a free Win and You're In berth. Dunkirk, an Unbridled's Song-Secret Status colt who sold for $3.7 million as a yearling, currently has no graded earnings, and he is scheduled to make just one more start before the first Saturday in May, in the Florida Derby on March 28. That race was worth $1 million last year but has since been cut to $750,000. Winning it would clinch a spot, as it did for Big Brown last year, but this year's second-place prize of $150,000 would almost certainly leave Dunkirk below the cutoff point.

The 19 available berths could further effectively contract to only 16 or 17 because of the strong possibility that several fillies will be cross-entered in the Derby and the Kentucky Oaks - possible Stardom Bound, Rachel Alexandra, and Evita Argentina. Fillies can more easily run up their bankrolls by running in races restricted by gender, and there is nothing to stop their owners from entering in both races if only to keep their options open amid iffy weather forecasts.

It's yet another reason that Churchill Downs needs to join the 21st century, and do what the Breeders' Cup finally did last year: Allow also-eligibles to be entered for the Derby, with the final field set Friday morning rather than Wednesday afternoon.

In the meantime, if Dunkirk endures a dreadful trip in the Florida Derby - say, he makes up 10 lengths down the stretch to miss by a nose in a performance that stamps him a superhorse - he'll just have to find another race between then and the Derby to boost his earnings.