12/12/2005 1:00AM

Problems in Woodward shift


NEW YORK - Usually when a racetrack or racing circuit announces its stakes schedule for the upcoming year, the information is greeted with apathy, if not outright yawns. That is because most of the time stakes schedules for an upcoming year are carbon copies of the ones that came before.

Last week was different. When the New York Racing Association announced its 2006 stakes schedule, it included many changes from the New York stakes schedule that we had all pretty much gotten used to. For starters, NYRA's 2006 stakes schedule represents a cut of nearly $4 million in purse money. A total of 50 NYRA stakes races sustained purse cuts for 2006. Eight of those races saw their purses drop by $150,000 or more, topped by the Jockey Club Gold Cup's purse reduction of $250,000, while only four stakes races were given purse increases, and none of those increases was larger than $50,000. And nine stakes races, some of them old, familiar friends, were eliminated from the stakes schedule.

It should be noted that these stakes purse reductions and eliminations might be only temporary. NYRA is hopeful that if the Aqueduct video lottery terminals get up and running by December 2006, there could be sizable purse increases in New York in 2007. Given the current climate of New York racing, however, it is unwise to bank on anything.

Certainly, one of the biggest changes in the 2006 stakes schedule is the move of the Woodward Stakes, one of racing's great events, from its customary spot during the Belmont Park fall championship meeting to the last weekend of the Saratoga meeting. One of the reasons put forward for the change was to relieve congestion of races for the handicap division in late summer and fall.

Unfortunately, that reasoning does not ring true. Not when the Brooklyn Breeders' Cup Handicap, a 1 1/8-mile race just like the Woodward, was moved from its customary spot during the Belmont spring/summer meeting to the Belmont fall meet. The Brooklyn in 2006 will be run only two weeks after the rescheduled Woodward, just one week after the Woodward would have been run had it not been rescheduled, and only three weeks before the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Congestion can't be that much of a worry when that is taken into account, or when NYRA next year will restore the three stakes scheduled for 2-year-olds and the three stakes scheduled for 2-year-old fillies during the six-week Saratoga meet.

It seems the real reason the Woodward was moved was to strengthen the final weekend of the Saratoga meet. The Grade 1 Hopeful and the Grade 1 Spinaway were also moved to Saratoga's final weekend to join the Grade 1 Forego Handicap, but that was partly due to necessity. There are again now two 2-year-old stakes preceding both the Hopeful and Spinaway at the Saratoga meet.

The problem with this, I believe, is that no matter what races NYRA slots into the final weekend at Saratoga, that final Saratoga weekend, while certainly stronger businesswise than it would be if racing were at Belmont, will never be quite as strong as the weekends Saratoga enjoys during August. That is because that final Saratoga weekend is Labor Day weekend. At that time in the Northeast, summer, as we know it, is over. Vacations are over. Families are concerned with getting the kids back to school. Adults go back to work. Everyone is going home after spending the summer away. In this part of the world, it's a lot easier to make a weekend getaway at Saratoga in August than on Labor Day weekend.

Another problem with the rescheduling of the Woodward is that it risks weakening this great race, and perhaps other great New York races, for a dubious return. The earlier date of the Woodward now makes it unlikely that horses will use it as a final prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic, which is exactly what was done by the last two winners of the Classic - Saint Liam and Ghostzapper. That could open the door for the strengthening of a Breeders' Cup prep outside of New York, a prep, say, like the Kentucky Cup Classic.

The new slot for the Woodward also has the potential of weakening Saratoga's marquee event, the Travers, which is run just a week earlier. Here's how: Say we have a dominant 3-year-old next year who is still healthy enough to race late in the Saratoga meet. Wouldn't that be great? Anyway, that dominant 3-year-old could turn the Travers into a three-horse race, because other potential starters would have to wait only a week to run in a perhaps easier spot in the Woodward. Or, the connections of that dominant 3-year-old might see an opportunity to get an easy win against older horses (always an important consideration come Eclipse Award voting time), and pass the Travers in favor of the Woodward, thus turning the Travers into a consolation prize perhaps resembling a nonwinners-of-two-other-than allowance race. Heck, with the way older horses are so lightly raced these days, the Woodward could even have a negative impact on the field composition in the Whitney Handicap earlier in the Saratoga meet, or vice versa.

It is true that when all is said and done the Woodward has been moved up only one week. But in this instance, it is amazing the ramifications just one week could have.