07/26/2007 11:00PM

Automatic Cup spots need tinkering


NEW YORK - "Win And You're In" is the punchy name for the new Breeders' Cup Challenge program of 24 races whose winners will automatically earn a Breeders' Cup starting berth this year. It's a generally harmless if somewhat redundant idea, since the winners of major preps don't usually have trouble getting into the Cup races, but in its haste to implement the program this year with stakes and television schedules already in place, the Breeders' Cup is compromising the integrity of the selection process.

The problem is that the 24 races, run on six days at sixdifferent tracks starting with a quartet of Saratoga stakes this Saturday, are less than an ideal slate of qualifiers. They are not balanced by division, a quarter of them are not even officially considered among the year's 100 most important races, and six of the events are handicaps, races designed to bring horses closer together at the finish rather than to give the best horse a completely fair chance of winning.

The 24 "Win And You're In" races include five Grade 2 events and a Grade 3. It simply makes no sense that the winners of the Grade 2 Vanderbilt, Pat O'Brien, Del Mar Mile, First Lady, and Oak Tree Mile, and the Grade 3 Phoenix automatically qualify for the Breeders' Cup while the winners of dozens of other richer and better Grade 1 races run before the Cup do not. Why should the winner of the Grade 2 First Lady get a bye into the Filly and Mare Turf, but the winner of the Grade 1 Flower Bowl does not? Why does the winner of the Grade 3 Phoenix get a free pass for the Sprint while the winner of the Grade 1 Forego does not? The very unsatisfactory answer is that the First Lady and Phoenix are part of a previously scheduled Oct. 6 television package.

Using these preexisting racecards as the basis for the "Win and You're In" program also means that there is no rhyme or reason to the distribution of qualifying races by division. There are four qualifying races for the Classic and Sprint but only three for the Filly and Mare Turf and none for the Filly and Mare Sprint. There are two for the Juvenile but none for the Juvenile Fillies.

The use of any handicap races as qualifiers is also problematic. Why should a lightly weighted winner of the Whitney, Vanderbilt, Go for Wand, Pat O'Brien, Goodwood, or Lady's Secret get an automatic berth over a superior topweighted runner-up? Breeders' Cup officials said at a recent press conference that one of the appeals of the "Win and You're In" program was that it could put "Cinderella horses" into the Cup races, but that sort of pandering to television story lines should not be part of an official selection process.

Reasonable people can disagree about the value and propriety of handicap races in general at the very top level of the sport. This corner believes that "Grade 1 handicap" is an oxymoron, and that handicap weights in major events are archaic and destructive. No other sport tries to beat its best competitors in its biggest events by imposing additional burdens upon them. In fact, they go exactly the other way, rewarding prior success with home-court advantage in playoffs and favorable seedings in tournaments.

The whole idea of meaningful weight spreads has been so debased by competition for marquee horses that it's not worth the time and trouble to assign weights to horses in these races anymore. Look at the three "Win and You're In" handicap races at Saratoga Saturday. There is only a six-pound spread from top to bottom in the Vanderbilt and a four-pound difference between the highest and lowest assignments in both the Whitney and the Go for Wand. Why even bother?

With any luck, none of these issues will have a real effect on this year's Cup fields. There will still be a selection committee in place to award berths to victims of any unfairness wrought by the new system. Its flaws do not diminish the positive goals of the program, including the promotion of the ratings-challenged Cup telecast and attempting to put other races into a meaningful context for casual fans by linking them to a championship event.

The problems with this year's program can all be corrected with better planning for 2008. Breeders' Cup could work with the host tracks (Saratoga, Del Mar, Arlington, Belmont, Oak Tree, and Keeneland) to ensure that next year's "Win and You're In" races are all Grade 1's, that all divisions are fairly represented, and that handicap conditions are modified for these events. This would require cooperation and some tinkering with stakes schedules, but that could be a blessing. The national Grade 1 schedule is still more of an exercise in chaos than one of clear paths to a year-end championship, and the Cup qualifying program could well end up proving the catalyst for streamlining and improving it.