If Smarty Jones wins the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) it will be a great story. Every bit as good as last year's headlines about the little New York-bred gelding Funny Cide, owned by a group of buddies who didn't have much to spend for a horse. A great story, but it should not be allowed to distort Smarty Jones' earnings as a racehorse or his sire's place on the list of 2004 leading sires. Because of a bonus offered by Oaklawn Park owner Charles Cella in honor of his track's 100th anniversary, Smarty Jones will not just be running for the winner's share of the Derby purse, but an extra $5 million as well. After winning the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby (gr. II) at Oaklawn, unbeaten Smarty Jones has a lot on the line when he faces the starter at Churchill Downs. Should he become the 130th Derby winner, he will be a very deserving winner of both the purse money and the $5-million bonus, half from Cella's wallet and the same amount from an insurance policy. But there is an inherent difference between the Derby purse and the bonus money, and the word "purse" sums it all up. If a full field of 20 runs in this year's Derby, each entrant will have a chance to win purse money; only Smarty Jones will have a chance to win the $5-million bonus. So write a check to Smarty Jones' owners, let the trainer and jockey get their cuts, but wise up, industry, and do not credit the $5 million to the horse or his sire. Think about it. What if Cella had said he would give a $1-million bonus to the trainer that started the most horses during the meet? Or to the owner whose horses finished third the most on Thursdays? Should that be included in their earnings? Of course it shouldn't, and neither should the bonus money Smarty Jones might win. In fact, should Smarty Jones win the Visa Triple Crown Challenge, he will pick up another $5 million. To any horse that wins the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, Visa will write a check for $5 million. Visa's offer is a great thing for racing, but it is another bonus that should not be added to a horse's career earnings. Last year, when Empire Maker won the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), the purse was $1 million. If Funny Cide had won, thus sweeping the Triple Crown, history would have recorded the purse as $6 million. That is just flat wrong. The purse was still $1 million; Funny Cide just would have earned a $5-million bonus. The fact is Funny Cide was the only horse that day running for an extra $5 million. To call that purse money is incorrect. Purse money is put up by a racing association and can also come from entry and starter fees. Those are monies any horse in the race can win. We have long had races restricted by age and sex, as well as for horses bred in particular states, or that fit all sorts of conditions. But those races are open to any horse that fits the parameters. Bonuses are not; they are for one horse and one horse only. When they hit the wire in the Derby, only one Thoroughbred can win Visa's oversized check five weeks later. There are many stakes run throughout the year that offer both purse money and Breeders' Cup funds. When those races are run, the horses not eligible to the Breeders' Cup program don't run for that share of the pot. That is fine, since any horse can become eligible to the Breeders' Cup, just like becoming eligible for a sale futurity or state-bred fund. But bonuses are far different. Suppose a horse has won 20 straight graded stakes races, and racetracks around the country are trying to woo his owner and trainer to run next at their facility. One track says it will pay a $500,000 appearance fee, and if the horse wins the race, will pay his connections another $500,000. The horse wins. Should $1 million be credited to his racetrack "purse" earnings? Cigar currently stands atop the earnings list. He made 33 starts and won 19 races, earning $9,999,815. If Smarty Jones wins the Triple Crown, he will surpass Cigar because he won two bonuses. Does that sound right? The industry should decide prior to May 1.
DAN LIEBMAN is The Blood-Horse executive editor. E-mail the Editor