10/25/2006 11:00PM

Nothing neat about Cup spillover


NEW YORK - Even before we all start arguing about who's actually going to win the Breeders' Cup races Nov. 4, there are some good arguments to be had about who's going to be allowed to run this year. With 103 pre-entries for just 84 slots in the six oversubscribed races, 19 are on the outside looking in pending scratches.

The exclusions range from the debatable to the incomprehensible, and all of them touch on issues that figure to recur in the years ahead as the Cup's popularity continues to grow. Close calls are getting ever closer in a racing world where horses are traveling more, racing less often, and frequently switching surfaces, clouding the question of who deserves to run on the sport's biggest day.

The two most prominent exclusions are Flower Alley in the Classic and Summerly in the Distaff, the lone shut-outs in races that drew 15 pre-entries each. The point is probably moot in the Classic, because Discreet Cat is expected to be withdrawn unless something goes awry with Bernardini, but it raises the sticky question of whether horses should gain berths solely on the basis of their current-year form or whether their prior achievements should be considered.

Flower Alley was second in last year's Classic and finished second in the Eclipse award voting for champion 3-year-old. He was the early favorite to lead the handicap division this year but instead comes into the Classic a longshot after winning the Grade 3 Salvator Mile and then being badly beaten in the Whitney and Woodward. On his best day, he's better than two-thirds of the horses who were put into the body of the race above him, but we haven't seen his best day since last year's Classic.

Even so, a close look at some of those ranked above him makes it hard to disagree with trainer Todd Pletcher's assessment that it is "an absolute joke" that Flower Alley was ranked 15th among 15 Classic pre-entrants. At least Flower Alley won a Grade 3 race this year, whereas both Perfect Drift and Super Frolic are winless in six starts. (Perfect Drift qualified on the points system that determines half the field, but Super Frolic was chosen above Flower Alley by the selection panel, which determines the other seven spots.) It also seems wrong that two Europeans who have never even raced on the dirt, David Junior and George Washington, were given preference over a Travers winner and Classic runner-up.

If the selection panel's decisive criteria was good 2006 form, it's hard to reconcile the Classic call with putting Commentator in the body of the Sprint while excluding Areyoutalkintome.

Commentator has started just twice this year, winning a statebred race and finishing off the board in his other start while Areyoutalkintome has been on the board in four graded sprint stakes. Commentator is the much better horse on his best day, just as Flower Alley is clearly better than Super Frolic, but it seems the panel used two sets of criteria to arrive at two conflicting decisions.

At least Flower Alley is likely to start whereas Summerly will need to get lucky to get into the Distaff. Her exclusion is stunning because she won the Kentucky Oaks last year over the Churchill track and has been pointed for this race since returning from an injury. After winning a minor race in her comeback, she failed in two major events, but her 1-for-3 record is still better than Sharp Lisa's 1-for-9 slate this year. Yet Sharp Lisa, who has been thrashed by a combined 42 lengths in her five dirt starts this year, gets in on the basis of a victory on the grass in a bad Grade 2 Santa Barbara last April.

If the Flower Alley and Summerly decisions are arguable, some of the calls in the Juvenile Fillies, where 10 of 24 pre-entrants had to be excluded, are simply indefensible. Gatorize, fifth in the Alcibiades in her lone stakes appearance, ranks 23rd of the 24 in earnings and seems an automatic toss but was inexplicably given a berth to the exclusion of Lily Carson, an impressive Saratoga debut winner who finished third in the Grade 1 Frizette after setting faster fractions than the colts did in the Champagne the same day. Also implausibly ranked behind the fifth-place finisher in the Alcibiades are the stakes winners Catch the Thrill, Cohiba Miss, Gal Wonder, and Mistical Plan. Every one of them has more right to a berth than either Gatorize or Satulagi, a second-rate filly who is 2-for-9 in Britain but apparently gets a free pass just for travelling.

There is no feasible points or earnings system that would work to determine every single starting berth any better than human judgment usually does. Still, it is hard to have much confidence in the judgments this year to select Super Frolic over Flower Alley, Sharp Lisa over Summerly, or Gatorize over Lilly Carson.