05/01/2007 12:00AM

Yum! bonus leaves bad taste


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Hats off to Yum! Brands for its decision to ditch the trans fat oils when cooking up those Kentucky Fried Chicken wings and Taco Bell chalupas. Arteries everywhere are grateful.

And good for Churchill Downs in getting the Louisville police to relax the Homeland Security codes enough to allow fans attending Saturday's 133rd Kentucky Derby to bring in their own bottles of sunscreen, on what figures to be a blistering day.

These are what can be called responsible corporate decisions, good for both consumers and investors. In the same spirit, it was hoped that, as corporate partners in the presentation of the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs Inc. and Yum! Brands would have continued in this positive vein, maximizing the impact of the race through the promotion of its pageantry, its history, its links to the local community, and its cherished place in the very fabric of the American experience.

But now, with the announcement this week of the $1 million Yumfecta Kentucky Derby bonus, the corporations controlling the race are messing with the organics of the race itself.

For those who missed it, Yum! Brands is offering the bonus to the connections of any horse who can win the Derby and in so doing exceed the 6 1/2-length winning margin posted by Barbaro in the 2006 running of the race. The bonus would be split four ways, with $250,000 going to owner, trainer, and jockey and $250,000 going to the Barbaro Memorial Fund, administered by NTRA Charities.

The bonus is insured, which means Yum! Brands is putting up only a fraction of the million-dollar dangle. For public relations purposes, it has been couched as a tribute to Barbaro, but there could have been so many other ways to honor the fallen hero than by encouraging other horses to surpass him in the Derby record books.

Certainly, a $250,000 donation to the Barbaro Fund from Yum! Brands, no strings attached, would have been greeted with gratitude and praise. Or how about another $1 million in the Derby purse, to be shared by more than just one of the noble competitors, with the promise of a Barbaro Fund donation based upon Yum! Brands sales on Derby Day, along with a modest percentage of the massive Churchill Downs handle.

Churchill Downs president Steve Sexton said there was "anecdotal" input from horsemen regarding the bonus, but no trainer or jockey was in the room when the final decision was made.

"I think it's a good thing that a company like Yum! Brands is trying to think of ways to be part of the Derby experience," Sexton said.

No question. But rookies need guidance, and the bonus betrays a fundamental lack of experience in horse racing by those who came up with the idea. Large winning margins are not simply a function of a single superior horse running away from his field. They can be manipulated by the winning jockey, or affected by the horse finishing second, depending upon his incentive to run flat out or save something for another day. There are also worst-case scenarios.

In the 1990 Breeders' Cup Distaff, Bayakoa and Go for Wand were locked in a ferocious duel deep into the Belmont stretch. When Go for Wand broke down, she was barely a handful of strides from the finish line. As a result, Bayakoa's official winning margin of 6 3/4 lengths was measured back to Colonial Waters, whose people already were content to be third. How would a bonus have tasted that day?

The $250,000 bonus for a jockey is nearly double the rider's cut of the winning purse. The prospect of such cold, hard cash is hardly an abstract.

"Sure it's a temptation," said Eddie Delahoussaye, who won two Kentucky Derbies during his Hall of Fame career. "Some young jock might have the thought put in his head by an owner or a trainer. Or some older jock might figure it's his last shot for that kind of money and really go for it."

The idea of running up the score is repulsive to a class act like Delahoussaye. He was a master of the school of thought that taught the ideal of winning by no more than necessary, primarily to preserve the horse for another day.

"A bonus like that just doesn't make sense," Delahoussaye said. "If he wins off on his own, fine. But why would you want to go beating a horse up when you've already won the Derby and you've got a chance to win the Triple Crown?"

Delahoussaye won the 1982 Derby on Gato del Sol by 2 1/2 lengths and the 1983 Derby on Sunny's Halo by two. In both races he was drawing away comfortably at the end, farther in front at the wire than he was at the eighth pole.

"Believe me, if you're about to win the Kentucky Derby, you're not thinking about how much you're going to win by, and you're not supposed to," Delahoussaye said. "With Gato, I remember it hitting me like a flash, at the eighth pole, just seconds after I knew I had it won. 'My God, it's actually going to happen. I'm going to have a place in the history books.' "

That should be bonus enough.