10/21/2004 11:00PM

At the Cup, you pay to play

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Two years ago, as the Breeders' Cup approached, John Amerman took a difficult stand and declined to pay the $400,000 penalty required to make his accomplished South American Lido Palace eligible to run in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Then the owner had to watch Volponi win the Classic at odds of 43-1.

A victory in the Classic could have given Lido Palace the championship among older horses, as well as placed him in the thick of the battle for Horse of the Year. For Amerman, however, paying the $400,000 penalty would have been a bad business decision, which - as chairman and CEO of Mattel Inc. - he was not in the habit of making.

The issue has arisen again this year. Pico Central, the consensus best sprinter in the nation, will not be running in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, while Rakti, the top-rated miler on the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Rankings, will pass the Breeders' Cup Mile. Their owner, Gary Tanaka, weighed the pros and cons and decided that the $500,000 in eligibility fees for his two runners was a bad gamble.

Tanaka's stars picked the wrong categories. Both the Mile and the Sprint are notorious for their trouble. No other six-furlong race pits as many as 14 well-matched speedballs, all hell-bent for prime position. As for the Mile, when run over seven-furlong courses such as Santa Anita, Gulfstream, or Lone Star, blind luck plays a disproportionate role.

As a result, Tanaka noted, "We could not justify supplementary entries of $200,000 [for Pico Central] and $300,000 [for Rakti] wherein success could be heavily contingent upon the luck of post-position draw and probable scrimmaging on a tight-turning track."

Tanaka has proposed a reduction of the top supplementary fee percentage from 20 percent to 18 percent of the purse, "to remove the psychological stigma of losing money even by finishing second." He suggests that portions of the supplementary fee come due at intervals of six and three months before the actual running of the Breeders' Cup, thereby spreading out the impact of the penalty. And he would like to see supplementary fees waived for the top non-eligible American horse in each race and the top two non-eligible foreign horses in each race.

"At least they're listening and trying to improve," Tanaka said of Breeders' Cup management. "They added the Filly and Mare Turf. They increased the purses on the Mile and the Classic. The supplementary fees used to just drop into a hole, but now they are added to the purse.

"They call it the World Championships," Tanaka added. "The hope is that they'll address this one issue that kind of leaves the rest of the world out."

The rumble over Breeders' Cup supplementary fees is as old as the program itself. Sam Rubin exposed the risks in 1984 when he paid a $133,000 penalty to pre-enter John Henry in the inaugural Breeders' Cup Turf, then had to swallow the whole tab when his horse came up lame a few days later.

That same year, backers of the supplementary system got their poster boy when Wild Again won the first Breeders' Cup Classic, after his owners put up $360,000 in late fees for the privilege of participation.

Ever since then, owners facing the penalty of supplements have been torn between the two sides of their personalities. The gambler says "Go!" while the businessman says "Whoa." Tanaka went through the same internal debate this year before withholding Pico Central and Rakti, and yet going forward with Aubonne, who will cost the owner $90,000 to contest the Filly and Mare Turf.

"Owning horses is kind of a tough economic proposition to begin with," Tanaka said this week from his London office. "I think you want to really pick your places to take your best shot. Aubonne has had a couple hard-luck stories in her last two races, so she deserves a chance."

In addition to Aubonne, Tanaka will be represented in the Breeders' Cup Turf by Sarafan, who is eligible to the Breeders' Cup, just like the vast majority of the 101 horses pre-entered this week. Eight of those required supplemental penalty fees ranging from $90,000 to $200,000 to become eligible.

As far as John Chandler is concerned, the price for a supplemental slot should be even higher, if offered at all. As general manager of the Juddmonte Farms operation in North America, Chandler points out that it is the stallion and foal fees paid by breeders that provide the bedrock of the Breeders' Cup purse program.

"They're running for our money already," Chandler said, referring to supplementary entrants. "Why would we want to make it any easier? We've paid a lot of money into the program through the years. But if they made it any easier to get into it late, why register any foals?"

In the case of Juddmonte, that would be upward of 200 foals.

"I'm not for the purity of saying this is a true World Championship," Chandler noted. "Is the World Series a true world championship? Two professional American leagues hasn't anything to do with the world, does it?

"That said," Chandler added, "I do think the first horse I would have supplemented is Pico Central."