10/16/2002 11:00PM

N.Y.-bred races have come a long way, baby

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On Saturday, Belmont Park will card 10 races restricted to New York-bred runners, the type of races that are often ignored by bettors for being low-quality events designed to reward the best of a bad bunch with subsidized purses.

By the end of the day, however, more than $15 million will have been bet on the card, likely the second biggest handle of the Belmont fall meet. If tradition holds, more than 14,000 people will come to the track, double the average figure for the meet, and if projections of 20,000 for this year's event are accurate, more than triple the average attendance.

To be sure, they are not just any 10 New York-bred races. It's New York Showcase Saturday, with seven stakes races and total purses of more than $1 million. Popular New York-bred runners such as Critical Eye, Gander, Funny Cide, and Maddie May are expected to run.

Belmont officials credit the races themselves for attracting so much handle, emphasizing that the large purses attract full fields of horses.

"They're restricted races, but they're very good races," said Bill Nader, senior vice president of New York Racing Association, the agency that runs Belmont and two other New York racetracks. "And the New York program has come a long way. It used to be, 'Oh my god, another New York-bred race,' but now they are very, very competitive, and it's obvious that people like to play them."

Although many of the day's stakes races have 20-year histories, Showcase Saturday was created in 1994 to present a full card of New York-bred races by rearranging the calendar and creating a few additional stakes. The concept was modeled on successful statebred racing days in Maryland and California.

The idea has taken hold. Attendance from 1998 to 2000 averaged 14,511, and handle averaged $15.2 million. (Last year, the event was split over two days, making comparisons tough.)

Dennis Brida, the president of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders, said that horsemen increasingly look toward Showcase Day as a destination for their good horses.

"They all circle it on their calendar," Brida said. "That's why the afternoon is so good. If they have a good New York-bred, what else are you going to do? You can make some serious money."

Purses for the Showcase come entirely out of the horsemen's fund at the track, but those purses are at least partially underwritten by a $900,000 contribution made by the New York Thoroughbred Breeding and Development Fund, a state agency. The $900,000 is given to NYRA on the "handshake agreement" that it is to be used throughout the year to underwrite New York-bred races, officials for the fund and NYRA said.

John Giombarrese, NYRA's controller, said that the development fund's contribution is a nice investment for the group's promotional program.

"They were contributing that same $900,000 before these Showcase races were set up years ago," Giombarrese said. "They're still contributing $900,000, but we now have these races with big purses. So do the math."

The Showcase is also an opportunity to throw a year-end party for the owners and breeders of New York-breds.

"It's like a Christmas party, but it's a Christmas party where you get a gift: a million dollars in purses," said Martin Kinsella, the chairman of the development fund.

NYRA officials agree.

"It's one part appreciation, but it's also an advertisment for how the New York-bred program has improved," said Nader. "We came up with the term 'showcase' because we think that's exactly what this is, a showcase for how good the program has been doing. It lets the public know how the program is getting stronger."

A number of other events are planned on Saturday to get fans in the doors to celebrate Belmont's closing weekend, including hay rides, pony rides, and, for the first time this year, the Harlem Jazz and Music Festival and Fashion Show, which will be held after the races.

All employees of state agencies for Nassau County, where Belmont is located, have been invited to the track that day, officials said, a good tactical move for a racing association that relies on state approval to keep its license.

"We're creating more events, and we're getting more people involved," said Brida, whose organization is contributing $15,000 to Belmont's promotional budget. "That's the key to getting these things going in horse racing. You have to involve whole communities."