Kentucky Derby

Derby reserves spot for European horse

Churchill Downs will give one lucky European horse a straight ticket to the 2009 Kentucky Derby, and an extra $100,000 just for showing up.

Churchill announced Wednesday a partnership with the British racetrack Kempton Park that will save a spot in the 20-horse Derby field for the winner of the Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes.

The goal is to get an international competitor back in the gate — something that hasn't happened since 2002 — to appeal to overseas bettors.

Usually, there are more than 20 serious contenders and Churchill decides who gets in based on graded stakes earnings, which puts international runners at a competitive disadvantage because their racing season starts later than the North American schedule.

The race will be run March 18, clockwise, under lights over Kempton Park's Polytrack course.

"The Kentucky Derby is naturally a compelling and exciting event, but the presence of international contenders always adds to the anticipation and intrigue surrounding America's greatest race," said Steve Sexton, Churchill Downs president, in the news release.

"A consistent international presence in the Derby will strengthen worldwide interest in our race and, in the long term, boost demand for the event as we work to expand distribution of Kentucky Derby wagering opportunities into new international markets."

Churchill will provide $90,000 of the $150,000 challenge stakes purse, with $60,000 coming from Kempton Park, which is owned by Britain's Jockey Club Racecourses.

Churchill will provide the $100,000 bonus if the challenge stakes winner races in the Kentucky Derby. The owner of the horse will still be responsible for all fees, including shipping costs.

"There has long been significant international interest in participating in the Kentucky Derby, but the current system that successfully uses earnings in graded stakes races to determine eligibility to compete has discouraged some international stables from pointing toward our race," Sexton said. He said Churchill has received positive reaction to the idea from major trainers overseas.

"The Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes at Kempton is a great initiative created by both Churchill Downs and Kempton Park," said Irish trainer Dermot Weld, in the release. "If I were to have the right horse for the job I would most definitely target the (race) at Kempton as a qualifying race ahead of the Run for the Roses."