Derby Potpourri
by Ray Paulick
Date Posted: 5/8/2002 3:30:16 PM

Ray Paulick
Editor-in-Chief

Jim Barnes stood off to the sidelines as the media crush descended on trainer Bob Baffert after front-running War Emblem gave the white-haired conditioner his third Kentucky Derby (gr. I) triumph in the last six years.

That's standard operating procedure for Barnes and many other assistant trainers who do much of the work but get little of the credit when good things happen. But Baffert, who lost his previous assistant, Eoin Harty, to Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin operation, went out of his way after War Emblem's win to praise Barnes--and for good reason.

Barnes keeps the stable humming day-to-day, giving Baffert the opportunity to focus his energies on the "big horses," communicate with his owners, and deal with the media.

Baffert gets more in the bargain than just an outstanding horseman. Barnes' wife, Dana, exercises nearly all of the stable's best runners, and Baffert relies heavily on her expertise.

Dana Barnes wasn't at the Derby to witness War Emblem's victory. She was back home, overseeing a birthday slumber party for one of the couple's daughters. Her importance to the team wasn't forgotten, however. In post-race ceremonies at the Kentucky Derby Museum, Baffert called Jim Barnes up to the podium and credited him and Dana for playing a big part in the stable's success. It was a rare but deserving opportunity in the spotlight.

Changing the Rules
Churchill Downs officials would be well advised to review entry and eligibility procedures for the Derby.

The late, surprise entry of Danthebluegrassman, who was on the grounds but never on the track's list of contenders, left Churchill Downs officials red-faced when he pushed Windward Passage out of the race. From the time entries closed at 10 a.m. May 1 until the post position draw was conducted that afternoon, officials failed to inform the connections of Windward Passage that they were on the outside looking in. That should not have happened. If the rules prohibit the racing office from posting a list of entered horses once entries close, the rules should be changed. Windward Passage's connections had every right to be furious at the racing office for not letting them know until minutes before the draw that they weren't going to make the starting gate.

Track officials also should revisit the wisdom of using money won in graded/group stakes as the sole criterion for determining Derby starters. A graded stakes point system, similar to the one used for the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, makes much more sense. That would negate the absurdity of the top four finishers in the world's richest race for 3-year-olds, the $2-million UAE Derby (UAE-III) in Dubai, from potentially qualifying for the Kentucky Derby in just one start.

Prestige Vs. Money
Speaking of purses, isn't it time Churchill Downs increased the Derby purse so that it matches the race's prestige? In 1986, the year Triple Crown Productions was formed to link the Derby, Preakness (gr. I), and Belmont Stakes (gr. I), Derby winner Ferdinand earned $609,400. Sixteen years later, War Emblem won $875,000 (excluding the $1-million bonus Sportsman's Park officials created for any horse that wins the Illinois Derby, gr. II, and a Triple Crown race). That's a 44% climb over 16 years, an average increase of less than 3% per year. The owner of each Derby runner currently puts up an entry and starting fee totaling $30,000, so the owners pay for more than half of the pot.

By comparison, the Masters, arguably golf's most prestigious tournament, has had its prize money skyrocket over the same 16-year time frame. In 1986, when Jack Nicklaus won his final Masters, first-place money was $144,000. This year, Tiger Woods picked up a tidy $1,008,000--a 700% increase from 1986.

Prestige is nice, but money makes the mare go round.

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