10/19/2006 12:00AM

Mediocrity in numbers?


The final Saturday of racing at Belmont Park in 2006 is New York Showcase Day, a program that once seemed like a genuine novelty since every race on the card was for New York-breds. Now more than ever, though, that makes it at least seem like just about every other day at Belmont Park.

For all the sound and fury surrounding the battle for the New York racing franchise, the most dramatic change in racing here over the last year has been the rapid increase in statebred racing. The New York Racing Association will run about 800 such restricted races this year, up from 541 in 2003 and 452 in 2000. That means that roughly a third of all the races run at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga are now statebred affairs, with more than three per card on average.

The schedule of such events is no longer frontloaded toward the snowy inner-track season at Aqueduct. At Saratoga this year, 99 of the 330 flat races, or 30 percent, were for statebreds. The biggest day of the Belmont fall meeting was a mirror of the stakes-or-statebred menu New York racing seems to have become: The Jockey Club Gold Cup program consisted of five Grade 1 stakes, three statebred races, and just a single open maiden and allowance event.

It's a combination of politics and practicality at work. Both NYRA and the other suitors for the franchise realize that the state's breeders have plenty of political clout and that legislators can more easily support green spaces and family farmers than gambling. Also, in an attempt to be both fan-friendly and revenue-conscious, NYRA officials are favoring field size over traditional quality and are quicker to card yet another 12-horse statebred maiden scramble than a five-horse allowance race that might well scratch down to four.

For better or worse, it is changing the face of the backstretch. There are more statebreds than ever on the grounds, no one can contend for training titles without a full complement of restricted runners, and some prominent trainers without statebred runners, such as Rusty Arnold and Phil Hauswald, have quit training here entirely. It's also changing the flavor of betting New York. A statebred maiden race is frequently the last race of the day, deciding the afternoon's biggest multirace pools and many a bettor's bottom line, and it's often a guessing game among first-time starters and hopeless veterans.

You can't blame the racing office for writing races for the bodies they have on the grounds, and it has made the statebred racing more interesting, with maiden-claiming and optional-claiming twists to the limited conditions of previous years. The problem is that it gets so easy to pencil in yet another full field of formless maidens for the finale every day that perhaps not enough is being done to keep the open claiming and allowance ranks in play.

The whole point of the restricted races and owner-breeder bonuses is supposed to be an improvement in the local breed and sport. From 1995 to 2005, the state's foal crop increased from 1,237 to 2,022, and the number of active farms increased from 356 to 402 during that time. On the other hand, the number of registered stallions has increased only from 135 in 1994 to 143 last year, meaning that the percentage of the state's mares bred to out-of-state stallions soared from 22 to 37 percent.

Are the horses getting any better? Mediocrity still rules, but the numbers at the very top are improving. According to the website newyorkbreds.com, from 1981 through 1999, only 11 New York-breds won Grade 1 stakes nationally, but nine more have done so in the past six years, including this year's two Grade 1 winners, the fillies Behaving Badly and Breeders' Cup Distaff favorite Fleet Indian. So New York-breds are winning about twice as many Gradeo1 races as they used to, but they're still underperforming relative to their increasing share of the national foal crop.

The most engaging and successful statebred racing is the restricted stakes program, which generally draws competitive fields of familiar runners whose longevity and popularity grow as they are brought back for one campaign after another in the same half-dozen statebred races each season.

That group may now include Funny Cide, the most accomplished statebred of them all. This will be his first Showcase Day appearance since he was a 2-year-old in 2002, when he overcame a brutal trip at odds of 1-5 to beat Spite the Devil by a neck in the Sleepy Hollow Stakes. Since then, of course, Funny Cide has won two classics and a Jockey Club Gold Cup. Spite the Devil has run more than 40 times and won the last two runnings of the Empire Classic.

In a field that also includes tough customers such as West Virginia and Naughty New Yorker, the 2006 Empire Classic is statebred racing at its best. The question is whether New York racing is becoming saddled with a bit too much of statebred racing at its worst.