12/23/2009 12:00AM

Cut takes some shine from Big Cap

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The reaction earlier this month to the upgrading of certain stakes events was cause for discomfort. The lasting image was of racetrack executives, fidgetting with their doffed hats, eyes submissively downcast and loafers shuffling the carpet as they stood before the altar of the graded stakes committee, grateful for crumbs.

"Many people have worked hard to bring the Arkansas Derby to this level. We have many people to thank in addition to the Graded Stakes Committee," said Pat Pope, Oaklawn Park's racing secretary, after the committee recognized the obvious and lifted the Arkansas Derby to Grade (duh) 1.

"The news is certain to have mighty implications for the future success of Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino's signature event. The graded status of the Sunland Derby adds a seal of approval among Thoroughbred racing's elite," said Eric Alwan, Sunland's publicity director, after the committee finally threw New Mexico a Grade 3 bone.

"We are very pleased that the American Graded Stakes Committee has recognized the excellence of the Clark Handicap and accorded Grade 1 status to one of our track's most important races. We have long felt that the Clark ranked with America's top races for older horses and applaud the committee's decision," said Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs who, though relatively new to the job, must have known that the Clark was a Grade 1 race for one whole running in 2006 before the ranking was unceremoniously yanked. Note to merchandising: Don't print a whole lot of those "Clark (G1)" T-shirts.

Out West, the ink already was dry on the Santa Anita Park media guide and stakes nomination book when word came that the Santa Maria Handicap was no longer a Grade 1 event. Even so, those responsible for dispensing the information have been slow to note the new, Grade 2 status on the stakes schedule page of the Santa Anita website, and good for them. Take your time. Any race won by Honeymoon, Silver Spoon, Gamely, Dark Mirage, Gallant Bloom, Turkish Trousers, Susan's Girl, Glorious Song, Bayakoa, Paseana, and Serena's Song gets a lifetime pass as far as I'm concerned.

The rest of the damage done to the Santa Anita stakes schedule now unfurling was self-inflicted. More accurately, it was inflicted by an economy that has cut into the parimutuel handle ultimately determining purse amounts.

There were a few minor events dropped - I will miss the El Conejo, as will In Summation, who won it the last two years - and the prize money for the Sunshine Millions, the shared event with Gulfstream Park, was cut to a total of $1.8 million. (Begging the question: how can an amount less than two be described in the plural, even though the "Sunshine Million and Change" doesn't have much of a ring?)

By far, however, the most significant change in scenery was the reduction of the Santa Anita Handicap purse by 25 percent. Not that the reputation of the race needs false burnishing - 10 of its winners are in the Hall of Fame, eight other Hall of Famers hit the board - but the million-dollar tag tended to carry that extra bit of flair.

For the last 24 runnings, beginning with Greinton's narrow victory over the 157-1 longshot Herat, the race has been advertised as a million-dollar event and made good on the guarantee, except for those two thin years only four horses ran, in 1988 and 1998, when the association got to keep fifth money.

In 1986, when the purse was raised to seven figures, the Santa Anita Handicap was second only to the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic among main-track events open to all comers. This was in keeping with the spirit of the track's own history, considering the fact that the Handicap was the first race offering a $100,000 purse when it was inaugurated in 1935.

Now, as a race worth $750,000, the Santa Anita Handicap is submitting to not only the realities of economy but also to the reassessment of its once cherished place on the American racing calendar. Through its first six decades it was, without question, the prime early season goal of every owner and trainer with an older horse worth a hoot. After Santa Anita, the rest of the year fanned out in any number of directions.

Since 1996, though, the race has been badly upstaged by the Dubai World Cup, in terms of both date and value. In 2010, the Handicap is on March 6, the World Cup on March 27. No horse has ever won them both in a lifetime, let alone in the same month, and precious few have even tried. Adding domestic pressure, the enriched and widely promoted Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park has risen to poach a number of potential Santa Anita Handicap candidates, for no better reason that, at nine furlongs in February, it provides a better prep for the World Cup.

Beginning in 2010, the World Cup will be run on a synthetic surface. Whether Santa Anita's synthetic environment will tip World Cup hopefuls in that direction remains to be seen. The jury is out, and getting restless, on whether a synthetic prep helps a horse win a $10,000 claimer, let alone a $10 million World Cup.

For small favors we should be grateful. At least Santa Anita management hung tough with the traditional date and 1 1/4-mile distance of its premier event. And, given the list winners of the Santa Anita Handicap through the first decade of the 21st century - General Challenge, Tiznow, Milwaukee Brew, Southern Image, Rock Hard Ten, Lava Man, Heatseeker, and Einstein - maybe even the folks on the graded stakes committee will hold the hook for a while longer.