02/15/2008 12:00AM

NYRA's problems reflection of entire sport's

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NEW YORK - Saved by the bell barely 24 hours before it would have been forced to suspend operations, the New York Racing Association will continue to limp its way through the 21st century, courtesy of the forced largesse of New York taxpayers, the unwitting victims of the sweetheart deal NYRA cut with New York lawmakers Wednesday.

Apparently neither NYRA, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, nor state senate majority leader Joe Bruno think anything of granting NYRA $105 million of taxpayer money to pay off its longstanding creditors. Most New Yorkers couldn't care less about horse racing, yet they will be the ones footing the bills for an organization that has very nearly run the sport into the ground in the Empire State.

Just how did New York racing, centered in the most densely populated metropolitan region in the nation, come to a such a pass?

In 1996 at a handicappers conference in Dubai held during the run-up to the inaugural Dubai World Cup, Nigel Gray, chairman of the International Classification Committee, expressed astonishment at the precipitous decline in the quality of racing in New York. Most New York racegoers at the time were still living under the delusion that the game at Belmont, Saratoga, and Aqueduct was still the best in the world, but sometimes local yokels fail to see the forest for the trees. A horse winning the Travers or the Woodward in the 1990s might look the same and be paying the same prices as one that was winning in the 1970s, but the quality was no longer there. It has declined even more precipitously since 1996, thanks in no small part to the policies employed by NYRA.

Not many current observers of New York racing - few that they are - can remember the heady days of the 1970s when giants like Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Alydar strode the grounds. In those times, weekend crowds of 30,000 and weekday crowds of 12,000 were the norm. Nowadays, a midsummer weekend Belmont crowd of more 6,000 begs the question: What were they giving away?

Not quality racing, that's for sure. A wholesale loss of top-class bloodstock to European and Arab interests may have been beyond NYRA's control. The loss of the old breeder/owner families did not help matters, but the legalization of raceday medication and the cave-in to an inferior statebred program to replace the top-quality Kentucky-breds that were drifting away to Europe has led to a situation where more than 40 percent of the horses on NYRA grounds are now New York-breds. And virtually all of them - New York-breds and otherwise - run on Lasix and steroids every time they set foot on a racetrack.

Well, it's the same everywhere, you might say, but that's not true. Britain, France, Ireland, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, and Dubai not only do not allow raceday medication, they don't have races restricted to horses bred in a given state or district, much less races restricted to horses bred in a given country. Racing without drugs and keeping virtually all races open to all-comers, especially stakes races, are two of the keys to quality racing, keys that NYRA and so many other American jurisdictions have jettisoned.

Perhaps one can blame the Off-Track Betting Corp. in New York for declines in attendance and interest, but that argument doesn't hold water. Britain and Ireland have more off-course betting parlors per square mile than any other nation in the world, yet they have managed to keep attendance levels steady over the last quarter-century. There are also offtrack betting facilities in Japan and Hong Kong, yet the game has been prospering in those places in terms of both quality and fan attention.

In fact, outside of Saratoga and the Belmont Stakes, every effort NYRA has made to promote horse racing in New York has been a failure for nearly three decades. Compare its efforts with those of the Japan Racing Association, where in the 1980s it was realized that attendances were slipping and becoming older and less female. Marketing programs instituted to make stars of out of Japanese jockeys helped to reverse those trends. A vigorous approach to promoting ownership among the wealthiest Japanese has made the best racing in Japan the equal of any racing nation in the world, something the Japanese could only dream about in 1978, the year Affirmed became the third American Triple Crown winner in six years.

Since 1980 there has been a concomitant decline of racing's market share in the media, not only in New York, but nationwide. Americans will not support a second-rate sport which, given raceday medication and statebred racing, is what the American game has become. Nor will they support a sport that does not appear with regularity on network television. As evidence, witness the success of the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball, or even the PGA and Nascar, all of which have outpaced racing for market share in recent decades.

Sometimes the truth is revealed in the details. In the run-up to last year's Breeders' Cup, ESPN invited the BBC's esteemed racing analyst Clare Balding, daughter of Paul Mellon's British trainer Ian Balding, to be an analyst on its Breeders' Cup program. At the same time, Balding was asked to serve the same role in Australia for the Melbourne Cup. Not surprisingly, she opted for Down Under, noting that "Americans don't care about racing anymore."

Getting the public's attention is the biggest problem NYRA faces over the next quarter-century. Success is a longshot.

BC decisions discourage Europeans

The Breeders' Cup seems intent on dissuading European horsemen. The awarding of the event to distant Santa Anita in 2008 and 2009 is a slap in the face to Europeans, who are more reluctant to ship their best horses an additional 2,000 or 3,000 miles in what for them is a mid-autumn return to a summer climate.

Meanwhile, the addition of 25 more races to the Cup's "Win and You're In" scheme means that not a single one of the 49 races in the program is run outside of North America. Thus, a horse that wins the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe is not technically qualified to run in the Breeders' Cup, but a horse that wins the Salvator Mile, a low-end Grade 3, is. It can hardly get more ridiculous than that.