03/24/2011 4:06PM

Huge purses always demand attention in sports


The proud American in this reporter winces at the fact that while the racing world is paying rapt attention to the unfolding of the Dubai World Cup Festival on Saturday morning, U.S. time, chances are the events later that afternoon at Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans will go seriously under-reported.

The comparative math is brutal. In Dubai, there will be seven events worth a total of $26 million, led by the $10 million Dubai World Cup. In New Orleans, there will be four events worth $2.3 million, with the $1 million Louisiana Derby doing the heavy lifting.

The whimsical in the crowd might point out that in one place the falcon is king, while the somewhat less majestic pelican rules in the other. Obviously, one location is oil-rich, while the other, at least recently, was oil-soaked. But the bottom line is far less romantic: in America, the Thoroughbred sport has to pay its own way.

Or at least try. Money from the Fair Grounds casino operation clearly helps fuel its big day. Sponsorships give other events some purse boosts, including the $500,000 Vinery Spiral Stakes on Saturday at Turfway Park and the freshly enhanced million-dollar Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, which now must be referred to in the strictest corners of the racing trade press as the Resorts World New York Casino Wood Memorial, although by that time the race is half over. Mr. Wood, we hardly knew ye.

Are the 14 older horses lining up to go 1 1/4 miles on the Tapeta surface at Meydan worth 10 times more in a purse investment than the dozen 3-year-olds entered in the Louisiana Derby, at 1 1/8 miles? Probably, considering the fact that several of the males involved in the World Cup – including the highly accomplished Twice Over, Gio Ponti, and Cape Blanco – can look forward to lucrative stallion careers.

The youngsters in Louisiana, on the other hand, are flowers of the breed best described as springtime annuals. They bloom brightly each year then disappear, only to be replaced by a fresh crop the following season. Mucho Macho Man, the likely favorite, already has a record of steady performances, so he could be on his way to a good career. As for the rest, they have work to do before they can be taken seriously beyond Saturday.

Still, a horse could win a million-dollar race then drop off the radar, and still the check would cash. The big numbers tend to attract attention all by themselves, with the quality of the field not necessarily corresponding to the value of the purse. A race like the Dubai World Cup stands on its own precisely because it is worth so much, far apart from any tradition or level of quality it might have attained over the past 16 years.

As to those 10 million bucks, with six million to the winner, the DWC stacks up respectably in terms of major events. There is nothing quite like the relationship between effort and reward of a two-minute horse race for comparison, but these major majors will provide some context:

◗ U.S. Open Championship – For his four days of gritty golf at Pebble Beach in 2010, Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell won $1,350,000 from a total purse of $7.5 million. Every player who made the two-day cut got paid something.

◗ The Championships at Wimbledon – A total of 13,725,000 British pounds, or $22.1 million, was at stake last summer on those hallowed courts, where Spain’s Rafael Nadal and America’s Serena Williams came to the end of their six matches on top of the tennis world. Each champion took down $1.6 million.

◗ Indianapolis 500 – Cutting it close at the end of the 200 laps, Dario Franchitti – aka Mr. Ashley Judd – had less than two gallons of fuel left in the tank when he won the 2010 Indy 500, along with a first prize of $2.75 million from a purse of $13,592,815.

Boxing also comes to mind, but the actual prize money is dwarfed by televised rights fees, so the big bouts don’t relate to the above examples. As for team sports, there is nothing to compare with the quadrennial FIFA World Cup, which in 2010 earmarked $420 million in total prize money to be sliced and diced in numerous ways. Bottom line – the winning Spanish team divvied up $30 million.

It is perfectly okay to root-root-root for the American cohort being fielded Saturday in the distant desert. Defending champ Kinsale King, who trains in California, has his hands full in the Golden Shaheen with the Australian icon Rocket Man. I Want Revenge, primed for the Godolphin Mile, has not won a race since his way-too-exciting 2009 Wood Memorial. Victor’s Cry, the lone American wolf in the Duty Free, has Dubai-wise Eoin Harty in his corner. Then, in the Sheema Classic, the two best grass horses in California -- Bourbon Bay and Champ Pegasus – have taken their personal quarrel halfway around the world.

As for the World Cup, American chances begin (and some would say end) with Gio Ponti, owned by an Irishman and trained by a Frenchman. The old horse never runs a bad race, so don’t expect him to start now. But national loyalties aside, there would be nothing wrong if the Japanese runners, Buena Vista and Victoire Pisa, came down there one-two, if only to provide a tiny drop of light in an otherwise bleak landscape back home.