09/27/2007 11:00PM

Gold Cup not the showcase of old

EmailNEW YORK - The good news for Belmont bettors is that 10-cent superfectas are finally coming to New York Sunday. The bad news is that New York still has an antiquated rule in place requiring eight starters to run a superfecta, so there won't be one on the seven-horse Jockey Club Gold Cup.

If there were, and you thought Lawyer Ron was a cinch, a 6-all-all-all super would cost you a mere $12 for a dime instead of the usual $120 for $1. Of course the payoff would have to be $240 for $2 just for you to get your dozen dollars back, but that's why they call it gambling.

Lawyer Ron will be odds-on against Curlin, Sun King, Political Force and three others, and unless you want to get picky about his 0-for-2 record at 10 furlongs and 0-for-1 record at Belmont, it's tough to bet against the favorite. Those two losses at 10 furlongs came in last year's Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic, when he hadn't blossomed into the horse he is today. The defeat at Belmont came in a strangely run Met Mile and was a one-turn race. A performance anything like his Whitney and Woodward at Saratoga should get the money here, especially since Curlin has been away since a dull effort in the Haskell and may not be fully cranked up for this race.

Given the tattered state of the handicap division this year, Belmont did well to round up five other older horses to face Lawyer Ron. The disappointment of this Gold Cup is the absence of any of the other star 3-year-olds beyond Curlin. Only Street Sense was even nominated, but he and Hard Spun were instead were sent to a far easier spot in Saturday's Kentucky Cup Classic. Any Given Saturday prepped last weekend in the Brooklyn. Lawyer Ron and the four

3-year-olds are the five early favorites for the Breeders' Cup Classic, but these days only a Kentucky Derby or Breeders' Cup can get even four of the five into the same starting gate.

Lawyer Ron will be the Classic favorite if he wins Sunday, and he has assumed the role of top dog not just through his last two performances but by being the first who was declared to be running in the Gold Cup. Everyone else made their plans around that, with Street Sense, Hard Spun, and Any Given Saturday ducking him and Curlin being sent into a no-lose situation amid uncertainty over his current form. You would have seen Street Sense or Any Given Saturday at Belmont on Sunday if Lawyer Ron had gone elsewhere or trained up to the Classic.

This single-minded focus on the Breeders' Cup has robbed racing of one of its great annual rites: the first meeting between the game's leading 3-year-olds and the older horses. Such showdowns once were routine in races such as the Woodward and Marlboro Cup as well as the Gold Cup. Now, everyone schemes to find the easiest spots to get to the Classic.

Those matchups of yore not only provided more intriguing races, but also provided crucial information about how good each division really was. This year's 3-year-olds have been widely proclaimed not just a banner crop but one of the best ever. Darley Stud has made a substantial bet that it is, having purchased Street Sense, Hard Spun, and Any Given Saturday for future stud duty. Maybe they really are that special, but that's a determination based more on a series of close and exciting finishes in the Triple Crown races than on any record of performance outside of their intramural contests.

If Lawyer Ron drowns them all in the Classic, does that mean it wasn't a bumper crop? It would be nice to have more than one race on which to base that opinion.

Sunday's quartet of Grade 1s are "Win and You're In" (Unless You're Not Nominated) events, meaning that Breeders' Cup starting berths will be awarded to the winners of the Gold Cup (for the Classic), Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (Turf), Beldame (Distaff) and Vosburgh (Sprint). No winner of those races has ever actually been denied a Cup berth, but the theory is that this system will create heightened interest in the races.

Of course another way to heighten interest would be somehow to arrange more than a single race between Lawyer Ron and Street Sense before they're both retired.