05/09/2003 12:00AM

British plan may enrich ruling class

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In 1992, English soccer made a radical break with the past by establishing the Premiership, an elite league that would ultimately enable England to keep pace with the rest of Europe, particularly Spain and Italy, in the increasingly cutthroat world of professional soccer on the international level.

Now British horse racing is embarking on a similar plan designed to meet what the British Horseracing Board sees as the requirements of the sport in the 21st century.

The most important aspect of the board's scheme is the establishment of a three-tiered system of racing, not dissimilar to the structure of national soccer leagues in Europe. It is the racing board's idea to institute in 2005 three "leagues" consisting of premier racing, national racing, and regional racing.

Premier racing would consist of up to 150 meetings, 100 on the flat and 50 over jumps. These would be the major British meetings at tracks like Ascot, Newmarket, Epsom, York, Goodwood, Sandown, Cheltenham and Aintree.

National meetings would make up the majority of meetings, more than 1,000 in all. Some of these would be at the lesser meetings run at courses like Newmarket and Goodwood, but most would be at meat-and-potatoes tracks like Kempton, Lingfield, Salisbury, and Yarmouth. Regional racing would be strictly bottom-end, consisting of races with horses rated no higher than 45 by the Jockey Club's handicapper. The natural venues for such events would be places like Carlisle, Catterick Bridge, and Folkestone.

Peter Savill, chairman of the racing board, said that the board would provide 10,000 pounds ($16,000) toward the prize money for six races daily at the regional level, where all of the contests would be cheap conditions races, claimers, sellers, and restricted maiden races.

Low-end tracks and the trainers who run at them are not keen on the idea. The allocation of board money means that races at the regional level would be run for as little as 800 pounds ($1,280), a big drop from the current typical minimum of about $4,500. Nonetheless, Savill wants to begin testing his regional plans as early as next year.

Jim Furlong, president of the Racehorse Owners Association, fears that the board is rushing headlong into this part of its plan. He suggests that Savill wait until 2005 for the startup, and is asking for a $4,000 minimum purse. George Ward, a member of the owners' association, was more outspoken. He thinks that the board is saying, in effect, that all horses rated lower than 46 shouldn't be racing.

The cut in support for the bottom tier would, of course, mean an increase for the top. British racing has long been plagued with poor prize money, and while purses for Group 1 and Group 2 events in Britain are generally up to international standards nowadays, lesser stakes races, allowances, maidens and most handicaps carry purses well below those offered in America, France, Ireland, and Italy, and far below levels in Japan and Hong Kong.

Other recommendations made by the racing board include an increase in the number of quality races for older fillies and mares, because the lack of black-type races for older females has long been a weakness in European racing.

The board is also recommending that steps be taken to improve the quality of all-weather - or dirt - racing, and that horses be routinely weighed before a race.

Two ideas that have long been integral to American racing are also on the agenda: fractional timing and 48-hour entries. Currently, only Group 1 races and races run on Sundays are drawn on a 48-hour basis in Britain. All others are drawn on a 24-hour basis, making Britain the only major racing nation in the world to operate on such a system. The racing board would like to have all group races, as well as major handicaps, drawn on a 48-hour basis by next year, with all races in the premier division on a 48-hour system by 2005.

The board also wants steps to be taken to improve British breeding, which it sees as having been in decline for the last 10 years. Ireland has stolen England's thunder on this point with the introduction of tax-free stud fees. The board wants to implement an owners' premium plan for people who own British-breds. This would be in addition to the already-existing breeders' prize fund.

Qualitatively, British racing is arguably the best in the world right now, but there is a perception that that is the case because of the many powerful Arab owners involved. The creation of a racing Premiership is being presented as a means of attracting new British owners. On the other hand, it might be seen as yet another means of appeasing the Maktoum family's continued dissatisfaction with levels of British prize money.

The question is, will any of the British Horseracing Board's plans lead to increased purses, or is it all a smoke screen designed in an effort to buy time from Britain's most successful owners?

Every country with a Thoroughbred industry has its problems. At least the British don't have to worry about New York-bred geldings winning the Epsom Derby.