01/11/2005 1:00AM

Grade 1 'caps lose BC support


LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Breeders' Cup board of directors has approved a rule that will make any Grade 1 race ineligible to receive a purse supplement from the organization unless the race is run under weight-for-age conditions, rather than as a handicap, effective July 1.

The rule, approved Sunday at a Breeders' Cup board meeting in Lexington, will affect a small number of stakes, but, on a larger scale, the decision is the first made by any U.S. racing organization that seeks to curtail handicap racing. Handicaps are races in which horses are assigned weights by racing officials so that the best horses, on paper, carry the most weight.

Currently, only six stakes races in the U.S. receive Breeders' Cup money, have Grade 1 status, and are run under handicap conditions. Those stakes are the Gamely and Triple Bend handicaps at Hollywood Park, the Bing Crosby Handicap at Del Mar, the Ancient Title Handicap at the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita, the Garden City Handicap at Belmont, and the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap.

In total, the six races receive $450,000 in supplements from Breeders' Cup.

Pamela Blatz-Murff, the senior vice president of Breeders' Cup operations, said Tuesday that eliminating handicap races would be consistent with the eight Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championship races, which are all run under weight-for-age conditions.

"We're not saying all Grade 1's have to be weight-for-age," Blatz-Murff said. "What we are saying is that if the Breeders' Cup money is going on it, that's what we would prefer."

Blatz-Murff said that Breeders' Cup would allow racetracks to transfer the supplement to other stakes races on their schedules if they wanted to keep the handicap conditions of the Grade 1.

Critics of handicap races have called the practice of weighting horses an anachronism that penalizes good horses, while supporters have said that handicap races help racing secretaries attract horses and enhance competition for betting purposes.

Some racing secretaries fear the elimination of handicaps will result in top horses facing meager competition in stakes races, resulting in poor betting propositions, while simultaneously driving lower-quality horses to easier spots in handicaps elsewhere around the country.

Martin Panza, the racing secretary at Hollywood Park, said "I would guess that we will probably end up moving the Breeders' Cup money to other races" while retaining the conditions of the track's two Grade 1 stakes.

Mike Harlow, the director of racing for Santa Anita and Oak Tree, said that he also had not decided whether to change the conditions of the Ancient Title or forgo the supplement.

Blatz-Murff said the rule change would likely be extended to Grade 2 and Grade 3 races in future years. The Breeders' Cup plans to distribute $7.25 million in purse supplements to stakes races in 2005, through its graded stakes program.