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 and no longer makes sense. Twenty Derby starters is the modern rule, not the exception. And it matters not whether that this year’s draw involving the filly Eight Belles went smoothly. Using any criteria, she earned her way in.

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.

Racing is what it is; a game built on opinion backed by dollars. Having a lot of either doesn’t guarantee a quality product. 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 gate, getting in the way aspiring titlists earn their awards; by accomplishment on the racetrack, ideally in one of the game’s time-honored preps.

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 but still might not provide the best course for the future. Like the opinion that says the graded-earnings system works. With Eight Belles getting a fortuitous Derby post position Wednesday, a potentially ugly sidebar was avoided.

With two days until this country’s most celebrated race, a challenge: To make a serious case for Z Humor’s participation other than his dead-heat victory in a racino-fueled million-dollar race for two-year-olds at Delta Downs.

As John McEnroe might say to any Handicapping 101 graduate; you can’t be serious!

This thesis is late in coming while waiting to gauge the latest fan, media, and industry reaction to the 2008 pre-race draw scenario. Two ideas, one from a fan, the other from a well respected journalist, not only was the most practical but had added benefits. To wit:

Create heightened interest and anticipation during the prep run-up period; boost the bottom line at racetracks already hosting widely recognized preps, and to help horsemen make the best decisions by knowing exactly what is to be gained from successful participation in any particular event.

While the establishment of two-year-old form is important for aspiring classicists from a developmental perspective, both physically and mentally, it’s meaningless if the individual fails to make the often difficult transition from two to three. Juvenile form is just that, juvenile form.

Precocity is an unreliable predictor of classics form. The fact that Street Sense is the only individual to make a successful leap from Juvenile to Derby winner is not coincidental. Derby talk should start January 1, not on the last Saturday of October.

There are twenty spots in the gate and, fortuitously, 20 established Derby prep races. A regional breakdown of traditionally accepted preps, graded or otherwise:

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; the Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby and Holy Bull; the San Felipe, Robert Lewis Memorial, Sham and Santa Anita Derby, the Southwest, Rebel and Arkansas Derby; the Blue Grass and Coolmore Lexington.

By region, this covers the West Coast of Florida (2), South Florida (3), Louisiana (2), New York (2), Illinois (1), Southern California (4), Arkansas (3) and Kentucky (3).

The ultimate goal is to have your horse peak in bluegrass country on the first Saturday of May. Instead of “win and you’re in,” points earned from in-the-money finishes in 20 modern and traditionally accepted preps, and you’re in.

In this manner, three-year-old form and the ability to handle two turns at meaningful distances is the best measure of worthiness. By assigning points to place and show finishers, it allows horseman an additional safety valve, able to gain experience and/or conditioning while not leaving your Derby race at the finish line of the final prep.

A too-late, fast-finish second or third in the Wood, Blue Grass or Santa Anita Derby-- often a predictor of winning Derby form--sometimes is the best way to arrive in Louisville near tops. A graduating point scale of 3-2-1 for the first three finishers in a Grade 3, a 6-4-2 scale at the Grade 2 level, and 9-6-3 score for Grade 1 money finishes seems a fair weight-to-grade ratio.

Among these 20 races, only the Sam F Davis is ungraded and easily remedied. If there remains insistence to include juvenile form, the only races included should be the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Remsen, Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and Cash Call Futurity. Two Grade 2s, two Grade 1s, all around two turns.

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