SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 16, 2009--In case you missed this interesting note in a Daily Racing Form news post by Jay Privman:

“The graded earnings clause, which determines the starting field if more than the maximum 20 horses enter the Derby, is quite controversial, but there's a worst-case scenario lurking that Churchill Downs officials are probably hoping to avoid.

“Charitable Man and Dunkirk are tied in graded stakes earnings with $150,000. If they end up tied for the final spot in the field, the published conditions of the Derby state that the next tie-breaker would be earnings in non-restricted stakes races.

“That would still leave them tied. After that, the final tie-breaker says starting berths ‘shall be determined by lot’. In other words, a shake or pill pull.

“If El Crespo finishes second in the Lexington, he also would have $150,000 in graded earnings. Like Charitable Man and Dunkirk, he has no earnings from any other non-restricted stakes races…”

Those of us not so secretly rooting for this Derby doomsday scenario to play out, are not at all motivated by schadenfreude--gloating at somebody else’s bad luck.

Parenthetically, schadenfreude is more rule than exception in the racing business, pretty much on every level: Owners, trainers, jockeys, handicappers, etc., etc. But that still doesn’t mean that the graded earnings rule doesn’t have woeful shortcomings.

In case you’ve forgotten our position, or missed it entirely, this was the HRI post from 2008 pre-Derby 134. Hopefully, it will not need another reprint in 2010.

[Bracketed text indicates updated material].

“Win, lose or post position draw, this should be the final year that Kentucky Derby eligibility is determined by earnings, graded or otherwise.

“The system has outlived its utility, if indeed it ever made sense. Twenty Derby starters is the modern rule not the exception. And it matters not that this year’s draw involving the filly Eight Belles went smoothly. Using any criteria, she earned her way in.”

[Irony is sometimes cruel and tragic].

“Admission based on earnings is fraught with inequities to the existing prep process too numerous to mention, and in the future it’s bound to get worse because any track could artificially inflate the importance of its prep race by throwing money at it.

“That might be good for business, but it’s bad for the Derby.”

[See the Delta Jackpot, UAE Derby and Sunland Derby, i.e., if the latter ever becomes graded].

“Racing is a game built on opinion backed by dollars. Having a lot of either doesn’t guarantee quality. All reasonable people acknowledge the Derby as “America’s Race.” As such, it should feature the best three-year-olds based on one criterion: Performance.

“Why shouldn’t the best 20 thoroughbreds be loaded into the Churchill Downs starting gate, gaining entry the way most horses earn their titles: Racetrack accomplishment in the sport’s time-honored events.

“There are only two ways to look at a horse race; before and after the fact. Post race any argument can be made with certitude, yet still might not provide the best course for future action. Such as the notion that the graded-stakes earnings system works.

“…[Here are] two ideas, one from a fan, the other from a respected journalist. Not only were they practical but also included additional benefits:

“[New rules would] heighten interest and anticipation during the prep run-up season; boost bottom lines at tracks hosting the established preps; help horsemen to make the best decisions possible by knowing exactly what is gained from successful participation in certain events [with fixed values].

“While the establishment of two-year-old form is important from a developmental perspective, it’s meaningless if the individual fails to make an often difficult transition from two to three, [allowing the competition to catch up].

“Juvenile form is just that; juvenile form. Precocity is an unreliable predictor of classics success… Meaningful Derby talk should begin on January 1 and not the last Saturday in October.

“There are twenty spots in the gate and, fortuitously, 20 established Derby prep races. The following is a modern breakdown of traditionally recognized preps by region:

“The Sam F. Davis and Tampa Bay Derby; the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby; the Lane’s End; the Gotham and Wood Memorial, the Illinois Derby; Holy Bull, Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby; the Sham, San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby; the El Camino Real Derby, the Southwest, Rebel and Arkansas Derby; the Blue Grass and Coolmore Lexington.”

[Some distances and scheduling may need tweaking, such as this year’s successful Fountain of Youth to Florida Derby transition. Further, the future status of the El Camino Real is in question].

“By region, this covers the West Coast of Florida (2), South Florida (3), Louisiana (2), New York (2), Illinois (1), Northern California (1), Southern California (3), Arkansas (3) and Kentucky (3).

“The ultimate goal is to have your horse peak on the first Saturday in May. Instead of money won… points earned from in-the-money finishes in 20 widely recognized preps [should be the criteria].”

“Three-year-old form and the ability to handle two turns at meaningful distances is the best measure of [Derby] worthiness. Assigning points [give horsemen better options]. Horses can gain experience and conditioning while not leaving their ‘A’ game at the prep-race finish line.

“A too-late, fast-finish second or third in the Wood, Blue Grass or Santa Anita Derby [often] is the best way to arrive in Louisville near tops. A graduating point scale of 3-2-1 for the money finishers in a Grade 3, a 6-4-2 scale at the Grade 2 level, and a 9-6-3 score in Grade 1s is a fair measure-to-grade ratio.

“…If there remains insistence to include juvenile form, the only races should be the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Remsen, Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and Cash Call Futurity. Two are Grade 2, two are Grade 1, all are around two turns in fall and early winter.

“Twenty preps for 20 stalls. What could be more impartial, obliging, or easier to understand?”

[As for European participation, a point system based on the same sliding scale reflecting Group form, with only three-year-old and juvenile races at a mile or longer the measure.

The idea of a single “win-and-in” three-year-old prep did not have an auspicious debut. After a terrible effort in the Blue Grass, Mafaaz will not run in the Derby.

The notion that greater European participation is interesting, but quaint. No one wants to jam up Churchill Downs Inc. for trying to increase handle by introducing the Kentucky Derby to a new market. But the goal should always be that “America’s Race” is all that it can be].