Preps are now about money

Derby contenders jockey for top 20

Horse racing


Hallandale, Fla. -- Strong Contender has just come in from his morning work and is gracefully walking down the shedrow at Gulfstream Park. Trainer John Ward watches as the horse approaches the far end of the stalls.

"There goes a happy horse," Ward said. "You see his tail swishing. He's talking to us. He's telling us he's feeling good, biding time until after his bath and another walk when he'll be able to go out to that patch of green and eat some grass."

Strong Contender doesn't know it, but his Kentucky Derby future will be on the line next Saturday in the Blue Grass Stakes in Lexington, Ky. The 3-year-old, considered by many to be a top contender for the Derby, is in danger of not even getting into the race unless he can make enough money next Saturday to assure his entry.

He's not alone in this predicament. A number of horses racing today in the Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby and Illinois Derby are in the same spot, including Sweetnorthernsaint, the Maryland horse trained by Mike Trombetta at Laurel Park, who will run in Illinois.

Unlike other sports, where won-lost records matter, it is graded stakes earnings that determine who gets in the Kentucky Derby if more than 20 horses are entered. That means a more talented horse could be locked out of the draw - which has happened.

In 2002, Danthebluegrassman, who finished last in the Santa Anita Derby, had the graded earnings to get in. Trainer Bob Baffert entered him, leaving Sunday Break, who was third in the Wood Memorial and would go on to finish third in the Belmont Stakes and win the Peter Pan, on the sideline with Windward Passage and USS Tinosa. Even though Buddha and "Dan" were scratched, other horses could not be substituted because rules state that once the draw is held for the Kentucky Derby, no other horse can get in, even if others drop out.

The Preakness had a similar situation last year when Golden Man, a horse recognized to be talented, was shut out because he had earned just $59,100, while Hal's Image, who was perceived to be less talented, made the field.

"It probably isn't the way horses should [be selected] for the Kentucky Derby [or any Triple Crown race], but it's the only system [we] have," said trainer Nick Zito.

Zito, who has been a fixture at the Derby since winning it with Strike the Gold (1991) and Go for Gin (1994), is hoping Little Cliff, a 3-year-old who currently has a bankroll of $12,500, eventually will earn enough to qualify for the race. Right now, the horse in 20th place among Derby eligible horses is High Cotton with $67,820.

"If you didn't go by graded earnings, how else would you do it?" Zito said. "Create a committee, like they do in NCAA basketball?"

Sweetnorthernsaint, who finished a strong third in the Grade III Gotham Stakes, despite starting from the 10th post with a new rider, is in need of a big payday if his Baltimore owners, Joe Balsamo and Ted Theos, are to experience the Kentucky Derby.

Because Sweetnorthernsaint was trapped in Maryland for more than two months due to equine herpes virus restrictions, Trombetta could not race his horse in high-paying out-of-state stakes races before the March 18 Gotham.

Today, he'll run in the Grade II $500,000 Illinois Derby and will need an excellent finish. With $20,000 graded earnings, Sweetnorthernsaint will again break from the No. 10 post, but this time jockey Kent Desormeaux will have the advantage of having ridden the horse before.

Trombetta said he believes Sweetnorthernsaint will need to be "top three, and it might even have to be better than that" to make the Derby field.

But Trombetta has no argument with the graded earnings requirement.

"They have to do it somehow," he said. "That's as fair a way as any. Top horses run in the graded races. It's true I've been in Maryland, and it has definitely hindered us. But guys who have very good horses develop them. I think this is a good system."

Ward's Strong Contender, originally pointed to the Lane's End Derby Prep in Kentucky, was shut out there by a late entry because he had no graded earnings.

Ward knows the rules. He won the Derby in 2001 with Monarchos. He walks to a board in his Gulfstream barn and starts putting up numbers. He writes 40,000, the approximate number of thoroughbred foals born each year. Then 20,000, the approximate number of colts. Then 50 percent, the number that gets to the races. Of those, 20 run at 6:15 p.m. on the first Saturday in May.

"That's what you're shooting for," he said. "It doesn't mean that there aren't better horses among those 20,000 colts. It's not always the best horse at post time, and I could conceivably wind up as one not in the race.

"But I think it is a fair system. And two minutes or so after post time, it doesn't make any difference. ... There's pressure to get in, but a horse isn't like a library book. We don't have to give it back. If we don't get in the Kentucky Derby, he'll still have a whole racing life ahead of him."

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