I'll start off by saying this has nothing at all to do with any recent trial ... lest anyone think that it is any critique of any judge(s). Just one of those "what-if" conversations that went off on a tangent.
Secondly, it is unlikely that it would ever occur in a major stake. It is also likely that it would be an extremely rare situation in almost any field trial.
Must a 1st placement be awarded in a field trial stake?
There IS a rule that: a first placement cannot be withheld if other placements are awarded. Evidently, that rule evolved from a situation where judges withheld the 1st & 2nd placements in a Qualifying stake because they felt that none of the dogs who completed the tests were of QAA caliber. This was related to me by someone who actually remembers the event, which goes back some time ago. That created quite a hoo-ha, and AKC responded by making the rule that would preclude that occurring again.
How this rule came to be explains why it is likely to be an extremely rare occurrence. It also explains why it is pretty inconceivable that it would ever occur in a major stake. And since Derby placements don't carry any official AKC designation of any kind, it would not be of much consequence there.
However, this rule would not seem to preclude the judges withholding ALL the awards, if they were adamant that none of the dogs were deserving of QAA status.
We are all familiar with the rule that says if a win is cancelled, the next placement moves up. Withholding 1st & 2nd placements would seem equivalent to "cancelling" those placements, and then move 3rd and/or 4th upward into 1st & 2nd placements ... effectively nullifying the judges' opinions that none of the dogs should be given QAA status.
So, the question really becomes whether the judges are allowed to withhold all the awards v. being compelled to give at least a 1st placement.
To Lab people this is, I am sure, of little consequence since there are more Labs who receive FCs and/or AFCs in a given year than all the dogs of the other retriever breeds combined who reach just QAA status in that year! To those other breeds, however, who have smaller field-capable gene pools to work with, the QAA status is necessary factor for maintaining more genetic diversity in breeding programs. Goldens, since 2000, have averaged only about 25 new QAA achievers each year. I'm not sure what the numbers are for the other breeds, but I'm guessing that the numbers are even smaller.
Back to the regularly scheduled programming ...