12/09/2002 12:00AM

Make it Great with slight tinkering


NEW YORK - Here's hoping that with an attendance of 12,380 and a track-record handle of more than $5 million, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Great State Challenge has earned the opportunity to be more than just a one-shot deal.

In theory, the Great State Challenge, which took place Saturday at Sam Houston Race Park, is a good idea. Consisting of six races that were worth $1.39 million in the inaugural running, the Challenge is something of a Breeder' Cup drawn along statebred lines.

The Challenge is an idea that needs only a little tweaking in order to become a popular component on the late-season racing calendar. For one, the participation of the various state breeding organizations, which was ostensibly to identify the prime candidates to represent each state's breeding program in the Challenge races, added an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy.

In some instances, state breeding programs are run like private fiefdoms, and the pre-invitees for some Challenge races seemed unrealistic - more like a wish list than a slate of horses who would actually end up running. And as it turned out, many of them didn't run.

Instead of involving the statebred organizations, the NTRA should commission a panel like the Breeders' Cup Selection Committee, comprised of racing secretaries from tracks in the participating states. This panel would be a more objective force in processing fields for the Challenge races.

Secondly, the decision to make part of the purse in each Challenge race available only to Breeders' Cup nominees should be rethought. Given the union between the NTRA and the Breeders' Cup, I understand why it is so. But, one reason only one New York-bred competed in Saturday's Challenge is that many New York-breds are not Breeders' Cup nominated. It didn't make sense for New York-breds to ship all the way to Houston to compete in a tough spot for a diminished purse. As a result, the Challenge wasn't as strong as it could have been.

Finally, a lot of discussion took place before the date for the inaugural Challenge was finalized for the first Saturday in December. If the Challenge takes place again next year, the NTRA has to settle early on a date, and then promote it. The date can't be too close to the Breeders' Cup, because that would preclude the participation of horses competing in the Cup. There were three Challenge participants who ran in this year's Breeders' Cup - Take Charge Lady, Forbidden Apple, and Day Trader - and their presence increased the credibility of the Challenge. But, the date can't be so late that if the Challenge is held in a locale colder than Houston, weather becomes a problem. For example, if Saturday's Challenge were held at Laurel or Philadelphia Park, the Challenge Turf wouldn't have been rained off the grass. It would have been snowed off the grass, instead.

One of the good things about the first Challenge was that horses representing Kentucky didn't make a mockery of the proceedings, as many feared they would. Kentucky did win the overall state-to-state competition, but only by two points over Florida, with Maryland another five points back in third. And, Take Charge Lady was the only Kentucky-bred winner in the six Challenge races, while Florida and California, which wound up fourth overall in the state-to-state competition with 21 points, each won two Challenge races. The fact that Kentucky didn't dominate the proceedings suggests the Challenge has the essential ingredient for events such as this: competition.

I think one of the best things about a continuing Challenge would be what it could do for racetracks like Sam Houston. No matter how well run Sam Houston is and how nice its luxury suites are, it's never going to get an event like the Breeders' Cup. Sam Houston, like a lot of other tracks, is just not big enough to host a Breeders' Cup. But, it seems Sam Houston was a perfect fit for the Challenge. And, the Challenge could be a nice perk for other NTRA tracks such as Calder, Turfway, Laurel, Hawthorne, Philadelphia, or Penn National. These tracks will never get a sniff at hosting a Breeders' Cup, but would probably do very well, as Sam Houston did, hosting a national event on this scale.