03/12/2010 12:00AM

Foreign news no cheerier than domestic


NEW YORK - The news from New York, New Jersey, and Hollywood was mostly bad this week, with purse cuts, canceled stakes races and abridged racing schedules dominating the headlines. Misery loves company, however, so American racing might take some comfort from the problems currently plaguing every racing nation in Europe.

Hardest hit has been Ireland. The country that most benefited by entry into the European Union is, with the exception of Greece, the European nation that has suffered most from the worldwide recession. In December, the Irish government announced a budget that included a 13-percent cut in funding to racing that will result in total prize money in Ireland in 2010 dropping $7.3 million to $64.4 million. That comes on top of a $10 million cut in 2009. Thus in just two years Irish purses will have fallen an astonishing 21 percent, down to levels not seen since 2002.

The Irish Derby and the Irish Champion Stakes will both be worth $337,500 less than last year. The Irish Oaks and both the 1000 and 2000 Guineas have been cut by $101,000. All other group races and listed races will be slashed by between $3,000 and $20,000. Thankfully, no Irish stakes race has been canceled in 2010.

Italian racing has been experiencing one problem after another in recent years, dating back to before the recession. Two years ago racing was canceled throughout the country for much of the autumn. A financial crisis last year was solved by an infusion of $225 million from slot machine revenue. The New York Racing Association might take a look at how UNIRE, the Italian Jockey Club, managed it, although it should be evident to everyone that a racing industry that depends upon slot machine money to keep itself afloat is moribund.

Even with those many millions to prop itself up, Italy is faced with continued difficulties this year. With betting down 20 percent in January and February, horsemen have been demonstrating periodically in front of UNIRE headquarters in Rome for more efficient funding. Some of Italy's 48 racetracks, both Thoroughbred and Standardbred, appear destined for closure, although the two big flat tracks - at San Siro in Milan and the Capannelle in Rome - are safe for now.

The collapse of the International Club, which ran racing at Baden-Baden since 1883, has necessitated a cut in that track's June spring meeting from six days to just three with the accompanying loss of two group races. Baden Racing, a new company run by the Swiss-based Infront Sports and Media, which is owned by Andreas Jacobs, owner of the Stiftung Gestut Fahrhof racing operation, is now in charge of the picturesque track in the foothills of the Black Forest. Current economic problems have hit German racing - which has always lacked the popularity of the sport in Britain and Ireland - very hard.

There will be no rollback in prize money in France, but the decline of the euro will make it look like purses there have dropped by at least 10 percent. In Britain, where purses at the maiden, allowance, and listed-race levels have always been weak, they are at least holding the fort, although there have been calls of late to replace the Levy Board, the government-run agency that annually brokers a deal with the nation's bookmakers for a small share of their profits, with a new system, one that is able to squeeze a few more pounds out of the tightfisted bookies.

Gender gap in the States

The affair between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta at Oaklawn Park on April 9 will be worth a staggering $5 million, which must have Arkansas horsemen wondering why some of that money couldn't be used to increase the purses of some of the other stakes on the schedule. Just as troubling is the hyperbole used in billing this business - and I do mean business - as "A Race for the Ages." The two females are certainly very talented, but they are no more accomplished than Zarkava, Goldikova, or Vodka, three fillies who achieved at least as much as the two Americans. Moreover, it is open to serious debate as to why Rachel and Zenyatta are avoiding male competition this spring.

Six of Goldikova's last eight races, all of them Group 1's or Grade 1's, have been against males, and she has won four of them. Vodka ran against males 18 times, facing her own sex just twice over the last three years. She won four Grade 1's against the boys, including the Japanese Derby and the Japan Cup. And neither of those two avoided foreign competition. The French-based Goldikova has won in England and America, while Vodka ran four times in Dubai.

In Europe and Japan, when a filly proves herself against males, she continues to run against them, because there is little point in beating females again. In opting for races like the ungraded New Orleans Ladies, or by dodging the Dubai World Cup in favor of a race like the Santa Margarita, the stay-at-home Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta go a long way toward defining the provincial nature of American racing.