09/26/2003 12:00AM

In battle of BC preps, East is richer


ARCADIA, Calif. - When the first Breeders' Cup was held in 1984, Chief's Crown was sent west from New York for his final Breeders' Cup prep race. He won the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting, then won the inaugural Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Hollywood Park.

Chief's Crown has turned out to be the exception rather than the norm. Very few horses based outside California have shipped in for preps in years when the Breeders' Cup has been held on the West Coast. That trend continues this year.

Although the Breeders' Cup is at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting this year, the only significant horse who shipped in for one of Oak Tree's Breeders' Cup prep races is the 3-year-old Toccet, who is scheduled to race in next Saturday's Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap as a prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Horses based in New York have remained in New York for a lucrative eight-race program at Belmont Park that is worth twice as much as Oak Tree's. And horses east of the Mississippi have another tempting option next weekend, when Keeneland opens.

Racing officials at the New York Racing Association and the Oak Tree Racing Association cite several reasons for this phenomenon. Mike Lakow, NYRA's racing secretary and handicapper, believes the prize money offered at Belmont Park helps keep local horsemen loyal. Mike Harlow, Oak Tree's director of racing, thinks the local presence of division leaders Azeri, Halfbridled, Special Ring, and Storming Home probably kept more horses from coming in for Oak Tree's preps.

"I still think we have the best quality, at the top," Harlow said. "It's tough to ship when you're encountering that kind of competition."

California-based Breeders' Cup horses, however, are running for far less money. Belmont's eight Breeders' Cup prep races are worth $5.1 million, compared with Oak Tree's $2.55 million. For example, Belmont Park's major prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, is worth $1 million, while Oak Tree's comparable race, the Goodwood, is worth $500,000.

"Certainly the Jockey Club Gold Cup is the premier race for handicap horses at NYRA," Lakow said. "If any race deserves to be a million dollars, it's that. It's a nice number to offer."

Lakow said the high purse money for Belmont's major races is a reward to "horsemen who have been with us all year."

"This gets them in the best position to the Breeders' Cup races, by being able to race in their backyard," Lakow said.

Oak Tree is in a difficult position compared with NYRA when trying to offer comparable prize money.

"NYRA is funded year-round. We only have a 32-day meeting," Harlow said. "NYRA can use most of its stakes money for Saratoga and Belmont Park, then be cheap at Aqueduct. We are funded separately from Santa Anita's winter meeting, so we don't have that option."

Seven of Belmont Park's eight races are Grade 1. All eight of Belmont's races are either the same grade, or a higher grade, than Oak Tree's. This includes Belmont's Kelso Breeders' Cup Handicap and the Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile. Both preps for the Breeders' Cup Mile are Grade 2 races.

"Our race has had three of the last four winners of the Breeders' Cup Mile, yet it still hasn't been bumped up to a Grade 1," Harlow said.