10/13/2002 11:00PM

Picking the Cup's horses


ARCADIA, Calif. - Tom Robbins had better buckle his seat belt. He is about to go from being the most popular guy in the game to the bad guy in the black hat, all in a matter of about 24 hours.

As vice-president of racing at Del Mar and a canny veteran of industry politics, Robbins should know better than to stick his hand into a bandsaw like the Breeders' Cup selection process. Tax collectors get more gratitude.

Nevertheless, Robbins will be heading the Racing Secretaries and Directors Panel on Wednesday when they convene at Arlington Park to pass judgment on the scores of horses pre-entered for the 19th Breeders' Cup, to be run on Oct. 26.

There is a chance that every one of the eight Breeders' Cup races will attract more than the 14 horses allowed to run. When that happens, the selection committee steps up to decide who gets to come to the party.

This is not easy. Owners and trainers work all year - maybe all their professional lives - toward the day they can participate in a Breeders' Cup race. To be willing to pay their way (a minimum of $20,000 to run) and then be told, "Sorry, your kid's not good enough" - such news can be hard to swallow.

"It's a dirty job," Robbins said, "but someone's got to do it. I know I'll miss Howard Battle. He was always one of the best at cooling people out."

Battle, the respected Midwestern racing official, died earlier this year. He had been a part of the selection process from the beginning of the Breeders' Cup in 1984.

A few things about the process have changed through the years. In the beginning, the selection committee was responsible for filling only five of the 14 slots in each field. The other nine went to the horses getting the most Breeders' Cup points, based on performance in graded races.

This year, for the first time, the selection committee will be choosing half of each field. The top seven point-earners will get an automatic berth.

The rest of the horses entered by the Oct. 15 deadline will be thrown into a pile for open discussion by Robbins and company. Seven will survive, with the rest ranked in order of preference, poised to move into the field in case of a defection prior to final entry time, Oct. 22.

Robbins will be the ringmaster of a geographically diverse group of racing officials that includes Mike Lakow of the NYRA, Frank Gabriel of Arlington Park, Chris Evans of Woodbine, and Europeans Nigel Gray (England), Garry O'Gorman (Ireland), and Gerald Sauque (France).

Through the years, the Breeders' Cup has gone a long way toward trying to make the selection process fair. The reduction of automatic entries based on points, from nine to seven, was an acknowledgement that the point system itself was skewed unfairly toward American horses hitting the board in sub-standard graded races. Both top-class Europeans and lightly campaigned Americans found themselves on the outside looking in, and the remaining five spots were not enough to correct such an inequity.

With seven selections, however, the subjectivity of the panel will be under just as much scrutiny. Half the runners will earn their way into the starting gate because of high-profile accomplishments. The other half must submit their records to theoretical comparisons and slippery intangibles. This is where the selection committee earns its money.

"We get paid zip," Robbins said with a laugh. "The chairman gets zip plus zip."

Okay, so they do it because of the free lunch. The committee members also must fight the perception that they operate under the influence of personal prejudices and political impulse. Robbins insisted that nothing could be farther from the truth.

"It's a very good group of people, and a good process," Robbins said. "Where you might think there is a tendency for a bit of bias, there is none."

That's good news, but it will not silence the critics. On Thursday, when the selection committee announces its decisions, there will be the usual cries about favoritism toward celebrity owners and trainers, a quota system for Europeans, and a tendency to select horses who are being supplemented for large fees. Someone will say - mark this down - "How could you ignore that Beyer and pick that plodding European?"

"I can't help what people think," Robbins said. "There are too many other things to worry about. I even worry that they might have miscalculated the points, just to begin with.

"We'll spend pretty much all day Wednesday going through the process. But I won't sleep much Wednesday night, thinking about the reaction the next day.

"People can become very emotional," Robbins added. "You try to reason with them, and understand their situation as best you can. You explain that the committee gave their horse intense review and just decided that it wasn't going to happen."

And how often does this calm, rational approach work in smoothing the feathers of a owner or a trainer left out in the cold.

"Rarely," Robbins said. "But what else are you going to do?"