02/14/2008 12:00AM

Breeders' Cup takes step in right direction

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NEW YORK - The Breeders' Cup Challenge and its "Win and You're In" catchphrase dominated television and print coverage of 24 races last summer and fall, but led to the presence of exactly one horse who might not otherwise have qualified and run: Purim, whose upset victory in the Shadwell Mile earned him an automatic berth in the Breeders' Cup Mile, where he finished 11th at 20-1. It's not even clear that his victory in that Grade 1 race alone, without WAYI, wouldn't have propelled him to the Mile, which had only 13 starters.

Will the expanded second year of the program, unveiled Thursday with an additional 25 WAYI races, have any greater effect on the fields for the 2008 Breeders' Cup? If it does, it will probably come in the six newer Cup races, some of which have only a handful of established preps and for which there are no clear paths to qualifying. For the main events, WAYI remains a marketing ploy whose saving grace is its effective irrelevance.

The idea of linking important stakes races throughout the year to the Breeders' Cup is a good one, providing context and a sense of urgency to those races for casual fans and viewers. Where it falls apart is in its lack of coherence and consistency. Sometimes the WAYI races are indeed the most important in the division, but sometimes they're lesser or oddball events chosen for the size of the media market or some other non-racing reason.

For example, five races are now automatic qualifiers for the Classic: the Whitney, Pacific Classic, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Goodwood, and Massachusetts Handicap. The first four are Grade 1 races whose winners would never be denied a berth anyway. It's nice that the Mass Cap is making a comeback, but why exactly should the winner of that ungraded race get an automatic Classic berth over the winners of the non-WAYI Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, or Woodward?

There is no reason, of course, except that Suffolk Downs asked very nicely and insistently to be included in the WAYI program and will spend additional dollars promoting the Breeders' Cup. It's probably harmless, since as a practical matter it's highly unlikely that the winners of those half-dozen more important races won't get into the Classic one way or another. But it's as if we're all cooperating in a big charade with a wink and fingers crossed that it won't really matter.

The new lineup of 49 WAYI races is in some ways better than last year's. There is far better balance among the divisions. With the exception of the Marathon, which has no automatic qualifiers, the 13 other Cup races all have three to five WAYI races, whereas last year some had none. There are three each for the Juvenile, Juvenile Fillies, Dirt Mile, Juvenile Turf, Juvenile Fillies Turf, and Turf Sprint; four each for the Sprint, Mile, Distaff, and Filly and Mare Sprint; and five each for the Filly and Mare Turf, Turf, and Classic. There's no rhyme or reason to the remaining differences, but at least it's a distinct improvement over last year's wider variations, and perhaps it's all heading toward something logical and easy to grasp like six qualifying races for each division.

Per race, U.S. handle unimpressive

How does betting on American racing rate on a global scale? The new edition of The Jockey Club's Fact Book, available online at .www.jockeyclub.com, provides some surprising answers.

The $14.7 billion in handle on American races last year got the bronze medal behind Japan's $26.7 billion and Britain's $20.3 billion, with France at $10.9 billion and Australia at $9.3 billion rounding out the top five. Seven other countries handled $1 billion or more: Hong Kong ($8.1 billion), South Korea ($5.4 billion), Ireland ($4.7 billion), Italy ($3.8 billion), Sweden ($1.6 billion), Singapore ($1.2 billion), and Turkey ($1 billion).

We run nearly three times as many races (51,668) as either Australia (19,963) or Japan (17,989), however, and more than five times as many as anyone else. So if you divide handle by races, the United States comes out only 11th of the 12 billion-dollar handlers in betting per race. Hong Kong is the runaway leader with an astounding $11.2 million per race, followed by South Korea ($3.2 million), Sweden ($2.5 million), and Ireland ($2 million.) Singapore, France, Japan, and Britain all handled an average of more than $1 million per race, while the American number is just $286,158, beating only Turkey's $125,313.

We've got a lot of product, but we're a bunch of tightwads.