11/06/2006 12:00AM

The good, bad, and the unanswered


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - On an atypical Breeders' Cup Day at Churchill Downs, where chaos reigned even more than usual, there were still plusses to go along with the minuses, and one very intriguing question that is, after the dust settled, impossible to ignore.

Here are some of the positives:

* True, and I mean thoroughly genuine, greatness was in evidence Saturday in the form of Ouija Board. "Great," a term that is used way too liberally in today's game, is one that I tend to throw around as loosely as sewer covers. By virtue of her second victory in the Filly and Mare Turf in three years to go along with her second in this race last year, as well as her Group 1 victories all over the globe, some over top-class males, there is no question whatsoever that Ouija Board is one of the greatest turf females ever to perform in North America. With her overwhelming score Saturday, she made some very good opponents look sick by comparison, and unlike so many shooting stars who fade almost as soon as they burst upon the scene, Ouija Board has been doing this kind of extraordinary work for years. There is no doubt that Ouija Board is right up with, if not above, the likes of Miesque, Dahlia, and All Along. And those horses were precisely the types of horses for which the Hall of Fame was created.

* Despite all the current upheaval in Thoroughbred racing, the game in the most important regard is still healthier than it has ever been. Saturday's all-sources handle on the Breeders' Cup, which is expected to exceed $140 million, absolutely crushed the previous record of $123,978,241 set last year. This is nothing short of remarkable considering that with all the longshot winners in this Breeders' Cup, there was little betting churn. It's almost scary to think of what the all-sources handle might have been if the Breeders' Cup results had been a bit more formful, because if they were, money would have gone back to more bettors, meaning more bettors would have been more willing to put more money back into Breeders' Cup pools.

"This confirms everything we have worked for the last 10 years," said Ken Kirchner, senior vice president of new product development for the Breeders' Cup, and the man in charge of betting for the event. "We worked to make this the best betting day in sports, and it is."

* Today's American trainers of top-class race horses have almost universally adopted the philosophy of "fresh is best." We saw a great example of this earlier this season when Michael Matz, who sent out Round Pond to upset the Breeders' Cup Distaff, sent out Barbaro to become the first horse in 50 years to win the Kentucky Derby off a layoff of five or more weeks. But trainer Kiaran McLaughlin's work with Breeders' Cup Classic winner Invasor took this to another level. Going into Saturday, Invasor had not raced in three months. In the interim, strong Classic favorite Bernardini started twice. It was apparent to most that Invasor was the only member of the Classic field who had prior races good enough to seriously challenge Bernardini. The big question was, could Invasor possibly be ready off such a long absence? He certainly was, and McLaughlin deserves a ton of credit for an outstanding piece of training.

Here are some of the negatives:

* It is a shame that on a championship day of racing like Breeders' Cup Day the results of the races run on the main track were profoundly impacted by a distinct track bias. The Classic aside, there is no question that the rail at Churchill Downs on Saturday was by far the best part of the track. It would be unfair to be critical if such a track bias suddenly appeared out of the blue, because sometimes those things just happen. But the fact is, the rail was also by far the best part of the track at Churchill on Friday. Such a bias detracts greatly from a championship event when races are conducted on anything other than a level playing field.

* Although many of the Eclipse Award titles were decided on Saturday, even if a few were settled in less than satisfying fashion, the results of some other Breeders' Cup races served to only deeply confuse the championship picture. Thor's Echo's upset in the Sprint, Round Pond's upset in the Distaff, Miesque's Approval's upset of the Mile, and Red Rocks's upset in the Turf threw their respective divisional championships wide open. And it goes from possible to entirely probable that none of these four has accomplished enough to gain a divisional title, despite their victories Saturday.

And here is that intriguing question that looms so large:

* Bernardini was always the choice to run in the Classic over Discreet Cat by Sheikh Mohammed and his racing advisors. But in the wake of Bernardini's clear-cut defeat by Invasor, whose only career loss was a sound beating by Discreet Cat, could it be that that the horse who is better than both of them did not race at Churchill Downs on Saturday? Could it be that Discreet Cat, who will run later this month in Aqueduct's Cigar Mile, is actually the best horse on the planet? Indeed, it could very well be.