05/27/2011 3:34PM

Breeders' Cup road still needs work


The Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park on Monday is the first U.S. Win and You’re In race of the year for the 2011 Breeders’ Cup. The winner gets an automatic starting berth in the BC Dirt Mile on Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs, if his connections want it, and this year even gets his $30,000 in entry fees and a $10,000 travel allowance paid by the Breeders’ Cup.

The Win and You’re In program, officially called the Breeders’ Cup Challenge, has been overhauled this year for the better but is still fundamentally flawed. The central problem is that it proceeds from false premises: That victory in one of these races is necessary to gain a starting berth in a Breeders’ Cup race, and that public interest in these races will increase because of the pretense that they are crucial qualifiers for the main event.

In reality, any horse who wins the Met Mile or almost any of the other Challenge races is going to get a starting berth anyway, under the two existing mechanisms of cracking the fields: a point system that rewards success in graded stakes races, or selection by a committee that makes sure the winner of a race as important as the Met Mile does not get excluded.

It’s as if Churchill Downs declared that the Santa Anita Derby or the Wood Memorial was a Win and You’re In race for the Kentucky Derby: The winner of those races qualifies because of their purses and is going anyway. Similarly, a challenge program is unnecessary to say that the winners of the Del Mar Futurity, Hopeful, Champagne, Norfolk and Breeders’ Futurity have “won” berths in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Those are the division’s only Grade 1 stakes before the Juvenile, so it is mathematically impossible for the winners not to qualify on points.

Until this year, the situation was worse. The slate of qualifying races did not constitute an objective list of the summer’s and fall’s most important races, because they were chosen less for their quality than for political and financial reasons. A feud between Breeders’ Cup and New York racing officials led to the preposterous situation where the Grade 3 Washington Park Handicap was a qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Classic but the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup were not. Inferior races were added to the slate because of a host track’s willingness to spring for hospitality costs and sponsorship investments.

While anomalies remain – why is the Haskell a Win and You’re in race but the Travers isn’t? – a lot of those inconsistencies have been cleaned up this year, and the payment of entry and travel costs by the Breeders’ Cup is at least a tangible benefit to what was otherwise irrelevant program. The improvements are an encouraging sign from the Breeders’ Cup, an organization in transition and still in search of a new chief executive, after several rocky years in which it squandered much of its goodwill within the industry with controversial decisions about expansion and site selection.

Yet even in its improved form, the Challenge program does not successfully address one of the major challenges that has faced the Breeders’ Cup since its inception: To create a legitimate connection between the bulk of the racing season and its year-end championships

For openers, the Breeders’ Cup bit off more than any racing fan can chew on by trying to create qualifying programs in 14 different divisions corresponding to its 14 races. That’s more than even a dedicated, existing fan can keep track of, and only hopelessly confuses a casual fan who reads or hears that Saturday’s Grade 3 feature is a Win and You’re In race for the 12th or 13th most important Cup race.

Instead, it needs to focus on no more than three divisions – males for the Classic, females for the Distaff (Ladies’ Classic) and maybe grass horses for the Turf – and let the other divisions sort themselves out. Having 24 Challenge races over the first two weekends of October alone overwhelms rather than inspires interest.

It should start with a single, simple road to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a grouping of the summer and fall’s most important races for 3-year-olds and up, with enhanced purses and a meaningful bonus scheme that encourages and rewards participation. This would create matchups among the country’s top horses between the Triple Crown and the Cup Day, a crucial but missing element in the current presentation of the sport – and one that the current Challenge system does not even begin to tackle.