12/08/2006 1:00AM

ESPN pitch is harmless puffery


NEW YORK - The 2007 stakes schedule released last week by the New York Racing Association was most notable for reminding everyone of a development that got little attention when it was first announced in the middle of Breeders' Cup Week: Next summer and fall, 24 races at six tracks will be nationally televised on ESPN and the race winners will receive automatic starting berths in corresponding Breeders' Cup races at Monmouth on Oct. 27.

For the most part, this new scheme is based on existing multi-stakes days, such as the Aug. 11 Arlington card that already included the Million, Secretariat., and Beverly D., or Belmont's existing Preview Day lineup of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, Beldame, and Vosburgh. The one that required the most rearranging was the opener, a July 28 extravaganza from Saratoga that involved shifting several Grade 1 races to the first Saturday of the meet, when the Whitney, Go for Wand, Diana, and Vanderbilt will now all be run.

Do not mistake this for anything but a made-for-TV accommodation. The races were not moved for better placement or spacing, but so that ESPN can now tag them with a simple slogan - "Win and You're In!" - to make them seem more dramatic and to tie them to the network's Breeders' Cup telecast. Whether you think the idea is a good first step toward a more orderly and appealing national stakes schedule or an unseemly intrusion of commercial television, the whole thing has a slapdash feel and does not hold up to much scrutiny.

The 24 races are not spread equally among the eight Breeders' Cup events. Instead of offering three berths for each Cup race, these two dozen instead almost accidentally offer as many as five berths for the Sprint and none for the Juvenile Fillies. It is mystifying, for example, why Keeneland could not have moved the Alcibiades by a day to fall into its Oct. 6 telecast to give the Juvenile Fillies at least one qualifying race. Instead, that card will now award a starting berth in the Filly and Mare Turf to the winner of the First Lady Stakes, a one-mile race that usually neither attracts nor yields candidates for the Filly and Mare Turf.

Otherwise, however, the effect of the "Win and You're In" program on the starting fields for the Cup races figures to amount to nil, rendering it an exercise in generally harmless puffery. While victory in any of these races alone would not previously have technically assured any winner a starting berth, no winner of these races has ever been excluded from a Breeders' Cup field, either. Barring injury, the winners of these races were going to the Breeders' Cup anyway. Fillies who win the Go for Wand, Beldame, Lady's Secret, or Spinster go to the Distaff every year, but now we're all supposed to pretend that they've won a necessary qualifier to secure an elusive starting berth.

As fictions go, this is not a dreadful one, but it does set a dangerous precedent that the sport must be vigilant about not extending. With the possible exception of the First Lady, these 24 races are already major events and legitimate Cup qualifiers, formally or informally, but the same cannot be said for every nationally televised race. ESPN has long accepted payment for vanity telecasts of somewhat obscure races, such as the WinStar Derby at Sunland Park, that the network then treats as more important than they really are. One can only hope that if ESPN asked Churchill Downs to designate the WinStar Derby as a "Win and You're In" prep for the Kentucky Derby, the request would be politely declined.

Derby qualifying rules must change

Unfortunately, Churchill already effectively has a "Win or Place and You're In" system going for slots-fueled preps, due to its continuing insistence on using earnings in graded stakes for awarding Derby berths.

Last week's $1 million Delta Jackpot is now a Grade 3 race, so it effectively awarded two Kentucky Derby berths by bestowing $600,000 on the winner and $200,000 on the runner-up. Similarly, a horse that runs third in the $2 million UAE Derby in Dubai could conceivably knock the American winner of a Grade 1 or 2 race here out of the Derby lineup.

Churchill needs to switch to a point system for graded races - something like 10-7-5 for Grade 1's, 7-5-3 for Grade 2's, and 5-3-1 for Gradeo3's - instead of letting wildly disparate purses, frequently inconsistent with the grades and quality of the events, determine who gets into the world's most famous race.