04/22/2010 11:00PM

Cup could use judicious trimming


NEW YORK - Some good news emerged from Thursday's Breeders' Cup board meeting, especially in the "no news is good news" department.

This was the meeting where it was widely expected that Santa Anita would be named the permanent home of the Cup starting in 2011, a divisive and unpopular idea that has gained little traction outside the Cup's boardroom but a lot of criticism from fans, horsemen and other track operators. Maybe Thursday's inaction on this front is only a temporary reprieve, but I'd like to think the group is having second thoughts.

The board approved a 2010 budget that included the same $25.5 million in purses for the 14 Cup races as in 2009. Last fall, Cup officials had said that a possible $5 million operating deficit and investment losses might lead to reducing some purses or even eliminating races. It turned out, however, that the economic forecast was unduly gloomy.

"Breeders' Cup net assets declined by less than $1.1 million in 2009 despite a $5 million decline in nominations revenue," the organization said in a statement Thursday. "Breeders' Cup was projected to lose over $5 million in 2009, but gains in other operations revenue and investments offset that potential loss." (The Breeders' Cup's audited financials for 2009 are posted at breederscup.com - the link is at the bottom right of the homepage.)

That piece of good news should not, however, end the discussion about whether the current Cup lineup consists of the right races and the appropriate purses for them.

Over the past few years, the Breeders' Cup added new races and raised the purses on existing ones, which may have seemed like a good idea in more prosperous times. There also appeared to be an ongoing desire to keep up with the Maktoums and the overall purses offered by the Dubai World Cup program, but that is an exercise in vanity and an unwinnable one.

Instead of worrying about that, it is instead time to reevaluate the Breeders' Cup's own additions and increases, and there appears to be some very low-hanging fruit in the way of substantial savings that would not diminish the program.

The easiest targets are the new grass races for 2-year-olds, the $1 million Juvenile Turf and $1 million Juvenile Turf Fillies. There is not enough 2-year-old grass racing in this country to support these races, and they don't attract the very best 2-year-olds from abroad. They would get the exact same fields as $500,000 rather than $1 million races, or they could be combined into a single $1omillion race for both sexes. Either way, it's an easy $1 million cut savings, more than the operational savings anticipated by adopting a permanent host site.

It's also debatable whether the Juvenile, Juvenile Fillies, and Sprint need to be $2 million races. (All three were increased to that level in 2006, the Juvenile from $1.5 million, the others from $1 million.) It's hard to argue that the larger purses have attracted bigger or better fields, and even if they were lowered to $1.5 million, the races would be by far the richest juvenile and sprint races on the American calendar. The idea that there is a 2-year-old or sprinter on the planet who would run in a $2 million race, but not a $1.5 million one, seems far-fetched. And why does the Juvenile Fillies need to be worth four times as much as the $500,000 Kentucky Oaks six months later, or be at the same level as the $2 Million Ladies' Classic?

The Breeders' Cup's rosier financial picture because of the performance of its investments does not address other bleaker prospects. The contraction of the bloodstock market, lower stud fees, and a shrinking foal crop directly affect Cup nominations revenue, which is projected at $12 million in 2010, down from $21 million just two years ago.

It's understandable that the Breeders' Cup doesn't want to make any purse cuts, but the ones suggested here would be invisible and painless - and far preferable to contemplating a permanent host site. That move might save a very few dollars in operating expenses, but would risk undermining the fairness and integrity of the event and alienating the vast majority of the American racing community. Such a development would ultimately prove far more costly than trimming some bloated purses.