02/11/2008 1:00AM

Cup's blundering runneth over


NEW YORK - The announcement Thursday that the Breeders' Cup will be run at Santa Anita in both 2008 and 2009 was not a proud moment for American racing. It betrayed the history and ideals of the event and cast an unfortunately accurate picture of a dysfunctional industry that is in crisis on several fronts.

While Cup officials are bravely maintaining that this is a positive experiment that may provide some marketing benefits, those involved in the process concede privately that they were making the best of a bad situation.

The 2009 Cup had been expected to go to either Belmont Park or Churchill Downs, which last hosted it in 2005 and 2006, respectively. The Cup is supposed to move around the country, generally rotating among California, Kentucky, and New York with an additional track outside that axis (such as Arlington, Lone Star, or Monmouth in recent years) completing the lineup.

Instead, neither Belmont nor Churchill was awarded the 2009 Cup, for different disturbing reasons.

Cup officials say that the New York Racing Association's all-consuming efforts to get its franchise renewed prevented it from seeking the 2009 event, and that the Cup board did not feel comfortable awarding it to a track that is in bankruptcy and subsisting on a series of three-week renewals.

Churchill's case is just as discouraging. Officials of the publicly held company reportedly have been seeking a higher revenue stream from the event - the Breeders' Cup basically rents your facility for the price of what you would make on an ordinary Friday and Saturday - and were unable to come to terms on a richer deal with Breeders' Cup. So we have the nation's iconic Derby racetrack essentially refusing to host the sport's year-end championships, something once considered an honor, because of a disagreement over hot-dog and souvenir commissions.

And some people wonder why sponsors and broadcasters don't consider racing a major league sport.

It's also entirely unclear why the venue for a November 2009 event had to be announced 21 months in advance. A deal renewing NYRA's franchise could be in place by this week, and it's hard to believe that another month of discussion might not have yielded a palatable deal with Churchill Downs. The official explanation, that there was a Breeders' Cup board meeting scheduled for last Thursday and that it always helps to have as much time as possible for advance planning, is not particularly compelling. It's difficult to believe that only 19 or 20 months' notice, rather than 21, would have hampered the 2009 event.

The timing is all the stranger given Santa Anita's ongoing drainage problems with its Cushion Track. There is little doubt that it will be repaired by this October, much less the following November, and everyone denies vehemently that the 2009 award was a precursor to relocating this year's Cup. Still, it seems odd to tell the world with pride that you're running your championships for an unprecedented two straight years over a track that has been unsuitable for racing most of this year. Why not hold off on the decision until after the repairs have been made instead of ratifying and releasing it the same day that Santa Anita announced yet another cancellation?

Cushion Track itself is another reason the choice of back-to-back Santa Anita Breeders' Cups is an unfortunate one. Regardless of how one feels about artificial surfaces, their introduction into American racing is clearly having its growing pains. No one can say with any confidence whether a decade from now they will be widely used and beloved, used for training rather than racing, or have been relegated to the scrap heap of noble failures. Nor has there been enough top-grade racing on these surfaces to say whether they are the fair and proper venues on which to conduct the sport's richest races and determine its champions. The premature and haphazard way they have been foisted upon the sport has left everyone in a state of confusion.

Running the 2008 races on Cushion Track was already an iffy proposition, and deciding this early to do it two years in a row is an unwarranted leap of faith. No track should be given consecutive Breeders' Cups, regardless of whether it's in California or New York or somewhere in between, but at this juncture in history it is even worse to schedule two straight Cups on a new and unproven synthetic surface.

Perhaps the saddest thing of all is that once Belmont and Churchill were deemed unsuitable candidates for 2009, there apparently was not a single alternative among the more than 100 other racetracks in America. There's something to be said for holding the event in the largest possible media market, but whatever tiny gains might accrue on the marketing side seem smaller than what is being lost in the way of the fairness and credibility of the racing itself.