05/02/2002 11:00PM

Stamp out Derby Fever!

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Regardless of how Saturday's Kentucky Derby came out, a result unknown as this edition is printed, it is clear that many things about about this most famous of races are changing rapidly.

The way horses are prepped and pointed for the race is almost unrecognizable from a generation ago. An increasingly fragile breed has prompted a less-is-more approach to training. Will we ever again see a champion 2-year-old with a long summer and fall campaign win the Derby off a demanding series of winter and spring preps?

Another aspect of the Derby that is changing is the perception of what a horse must do to merit a start in the race. Gone are the days when sporting owners would look for softer spots after repeated beatings by the Derby favorites in the preps that are supposed to sort these things out. It's not as if there aren't alternatives: Lone Star is putting on a Derby next Saturday where several of the Derby's 100-1 shots might have been 4-1 for a $500,000 purse. It now seems there will always be more than enough people who prefer to be 100-1 under the big top.

In addition, Derby berths are increasingly being filled by the powerful international stables who want to have runners in every major event. The Maktoums and Coolmore seem likely in years to come to rival trainer D. Wayne Lukas's streak of 20 consecutive Derbies with at least one starter. Bob Baffert and Nick Zito will be there as often as they can, and outfits such as Team Valor and Peachtree aren't going to be shy and wait until they have a legitimate 5-1 shot instead of a Windward Passage or Wild Horses. While this year was more unsettled than most, encouraging anyone with a healthy 3-year-old to take a shot, an imposing Derby favorite no longer seems likely to scare anyone off.

The enthusiasm is nice but it carries problems. Twenty-horse fields are recipes for traffic jams and races that are not truly run. All the jockeying for starting berths becomes a distracting focal point for a game still struggling for mainstream attention. Perhaps the biggest downside is the likely continuing exclusion of horses such as Sunday Break, who by any reasonable standard had a better chance of winning the race than many of the marginal contenders who qualified under the flawed criterion of graded-stakes earnings.

A suggestion in this space two weeks ago, anticipating the Sunday Break situation and suggesting human intervention in the selection process similar to the Breeders' Cup system of "inviting" nearly half the field, was met with surprising hostility from many readers. There was a groundswell of egalitarian sentiment that there should be specific and objective criteria rather than subjective judgments.

Still, there has to be a better system than comparing bankrolls. The most flagrant opportunity for mischief under the current system is the misguided recognition of some foreign races as qualifying graded races. The $2 million UAE Derby alone, a race contested largely among nothing but stablemates owned by the Maktoum family, can qualify four Dubai horses for the Kentucky Derby every year solely by virtue of its outlandish $2 million purse.

One way to turn this entire problem into a positive opportunity for the sport might be to consider an organized rather than haphazard designation of qualifying races. The idea would be that victory in certain races, and running second and third in the most important ones, would automatically earn a horse a Derby berth.

This might allow for better definition of the racing calendar and create more interest in individual prep races. The concept that the winner of a certain race, or the first three finishers in another, are guaranteed a Derby start if they make it that far, provides a clear and accessible purpose to these races and an easier way to market and promote them. Rather than being billed merely as "final tune-ups," a difficult concept with which to hook the general public, these races might take on clearer import in the way that the final games of other sports' regular seasons can be dramatic showdowns for the final playoff berths.

Earnings, even in graded stakes, just have too many flaws to be the sole standard. They give 2-year-old performances equal weight with more relevant races at 3, fail to recognize distance, and do not compensate for arbitrary purse differences established by tracks. If we're entering an age when 30 horses are vying for 20 Derby spots every year, there should be a better way not only to ensure that the most deserving 20 get in but also to make the process an enhancement rather than another offputting distraction for the sport.