08/08/2007 11:00PM

Cup prelims need coordinated effort

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The three Grade 1 grass races at Arlington Park Saturday are an interesting trio of bettable races as well as "Win and You're In" events for purposes of qualifying for the Breeders' Cup. Yet they would be even better and more meaningful events if American racing would ever begin scheduling its major events a bit more cooperatively for the good of the game.

The three races drew just 24 entrants - 9 for the Secretariat, 7 for the Beverly D. and 8 for the Arlington Million - in part because of competing Grade 1 races at Del Mar and Saratoga.

The Beverly D. drew a very nice field headed by Citronnade, Honey Ryder, and Lady of Venice, but would have been a dazzler if My Typhoon and Precious Kitten had joined the fray. Instead, My Typhoon won a six-horse Grade 1 Diana at Saratoga July 28 and a week later Precious Kitten won a five-horse Grade 1 Mabee Handicap at Del Mar.

The Million includes After Market, The Tin Man, Sunriver, and some intriguing imports, but lacks English Channel and Better Talk Now, who instead will be running at Saratoga the same afternoon in the Grade 1 Sword Dancer.

Imagine how much better all the races would be if they were scheduled to complement one another. Fillies and mares could point for the Beverly D. by first running the Diana or Mabee, while the Eddie Read and Sword Dancer could be the bicoastal paths to the Million. All this would require would be moving the Del Mar and Saratoga races to the very beginning of those meetings and perhaps running the Million Day races a week later. This would create exactly the continuity and context that the "Win and You're In" program is trying to create: a succession of major days featuring important races that lead to the Breeders' Cup, rather than the current overlapping and conflicting mess that is the American racing calendar.

Instead, the well-intentioned "Win and You're In" program continues to stub its toe by overemphasizing the true importance of some of its races, pretending that anything being shown on an ESPN telecast should guarantee a horse a berth in the Breeders' Cup. The Secretariat, a race restricted to 3-year-olds, is by no stretch of anyone's imagination one of the 14 key international grass races preceding the Breeders' Cup Turf. It's the grass equivalent of saying that the winner of the West Virginia Derby should get a bye into the starting gate for the Breeders' Cup Classic.

This year's Secretariat is a Grade 1 race in name only. Outside of Red Giant, the recent 37-1 upset winner of the Virginia Derby, the American contingent is so weak that betting favoritism may fall to Admiralofthefleet and Shamdinan, coming off drubbings in European classics. So the winners of the Epsom and Irish Derbies are not guaranteed spots in the Breeders' Cup Turf, but horses who finished ninth and 10th in those races get an automatic berth if they come to America and beat second-raters in the Secretariat.

Churchill playing numbers game

Churchill Downs Inc. is understandably frustrated with reporters and analysts who misguidedly focus on live-attendance totals as a barometer of health for an industry that is increasingly driven by offtrack and account wagering. Churchill, however, went a step too far, into a realm of paranoid crypto-secrecy, with its announcement Wednesday that it will no longer release either attendance or handle totals for its four tracks at the conclusion of race meets.

Attendance figures are something of a joke, often reflecting turnstile spins for merchandise, or wishful thinking on the part of track officials determined to announce record crowds for major events, rather than reflecting a meaningful economic component or indicating the true popularity of events. Attendance is also increasingly irrelevant in the racino era, where it's hard to separate head-counts for slots and racing customers and admission is sometimes free.

Handle, on the other hand, is the primary source of track revenue, not a debatable number, and impossible to keep secret anyway: Pool totals are published in race charts, and have to be reported to racing commissions and to the hundreds of account and simulcast outlets participating in wagering. Saying it will no longer provide these figures is just stubborn and silly on Churchill's part and will merely force others to go through a few extra steps to create them.

Churchill has every right to stop issuing press releases with meet-end figures, but to deny access to those figures to interested parties, and to institute a corporate policy of concealing its most fundamental sales metrics, can only create ill will and the impression that it has something to hide.