07/18/2008 12:00AM

Field-size bonuses may go long way

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NEW YORK - When the voters of New York agreed seven years ago to permit slot machines at the state's racetracks, giddy horse owners began smacking their lips at the prospect of six-figure maiden and allowance races at Belmont and Saratoga fueled by new revenues from a racino at Aqueduct.

Seven years later, the politicians still haven't gotten around to deciding who should run the racino, a delay that has cost the state and racing literally billions of dollars. But even without the slots dollars, the era of the $100,000 overnight race will begin anyway, shortly after Saratoga opens Wednesday.

The added money is coming not from the spinning reels, but from the New York Racing Association's attempt to revive longer-distance racing, which has been on the wane outside of a few established stakes races throughout American racing in general and in the Empire State in particular. Starting Wednesday at the Spa, non-claiming maiden, allowance, and overnight stakes races at nine furlongs and up will have their purses boosted by $5,000 to $10,000 for each starter in excess of eight.

The premiums are $5,000 for each additional starter in maiden races, $8,000 per starter in first- and second-level allowance races, and $10,000 per starter in money-won allowances and overnight stakes. So a maiden race at 11 furlongs on the grass that went for $63,000 last year would jump by $10,000 to $73,000 if 10 ran. A $70,000 nine-furlong nonwinners-of-two on the dirt would go to $94,000 with 11 in the gate. And a high-grade money-won allowance race with a field of 12 could be worth $114,000 instead of $74,000.

There are two goals to the scheme. The more venal one is simply to increase field size, especially in the undercard overnight races on big days, which increases betting handle. On Derby and Preakness Days this year, total simulcast pools for races were as much as $2 million higher or lower than their 2007 equivalents based solely on field size. Over the last couple of years, New York and California tracks have been making maiden and allowance races worth as much as $10,000 more than usual on big-event days to ensure fuller fields.

The other aim is to bring back more long races, which even when carded in condition books are often scrapped due to insufficient entries. In New York, there seem to be fewer than half as many long-distance grass maiden and allowance races as there were a decade ago, replaced by a glut of 5 1/2- and six-furlong turf sprints, which are always guaranteed to draw full fields of statebred maidens who can neither sprint successfully on the dirt nor handle longer distances in real grass races. Faced with carding either an 11-horse race at six furlongs or a six-horse race at 11 furlongs, racing offices usually choose quantity over quality and distance, and the longer races get abandoned, perpetuating a vicious circle.

The Saratoga plan should be applauded for trying to break that cycle, as should the institution of the Breeders' Cup Marathon at a 1 1/2 miles on the main track this year. That race has taken a lot of ribbing as it's likely to feature a somewhat motley crew in its early years, given the lack of a program of races to identify and encourage championship-caliber racing at that level. But you have to start somewhere, and American tracks have been quick and responsive trying to institute a prep series for that race, with events such as Keeneland's Fort Harrod, Belmont's reconstituted Brooklyn Handicap, and this Saturday's $250,000 Greenwood Cup at Philadelphia Park.

Stamina and endurance became big talking points this spring amid the uproar over breakdowns and medication, and the fact that Saratoga is addressing distance issues through a focus on maiden and allowance races reinforces some truths that were frequently forgotten in that debate. All the loose talk about the evil commercial breeders promoting precocity over soundness suggested that the sport's most valuable bloodstock and sales prospects were speedballs and that the big money in racing was in 2-year-old racing and sprints.

In fact, this is less true than ever. Sprints and 2-year-old stakes are at the low end of the purse spectrum, and the stallions being syndicated at record prices are classic winners, not 5 1/2-furlong specialists. It's the racing and breeding at the day-to-day level, not at the top end, that has been skewing sharply shorter.

A handful of higher purses at Saratoga and one new Breeders' Cup race aren't going to change all that anytime soon, but it sure can't hurt. People in racing like to say that "Money makes the mare go"; in this case, perhaps some extra money will make the mare start to go longer.