01/31/2003 1:00AM

Purse comes first, not the prestige


NEW YORK - The announcement last week that the British Horseracing Board was making the unilateral decision to create 14 new listed races is part of a scheme to increase the number of black-type events open to older fillies and mares. It followed the upgrading of 19 British races from listed to Group 3 status by the European Pattern Race Committee the week before.

Two weeks earlier, the British Thoroughbred Breeders Association had announced that it would be embarking on a program to improve the number of stakes open to fillies and mares. This is a wise if overdue idea. The number of such races in Britain and the rest of Europe is woefully inadequate, a function of the prominent place that breeding has always held in European racing.

Last year there were just seven group races in Britain restricted to older females and just 20 throughout Europe. By comparison, there were 103 such races run in the United States. One of the reasons the BHB has given for the increase in these races is to stem the annual flow of female Thoroughbreds to America.

Its plan, however, can never be more than partially successful. Certainly, some breeder/owners in England will keep their 4- and 5-year-old fillies at home in the hope that they might pick up listed or even Group 3 black-type credit. But there is another issue at play in what Ruth Quinn, the racing board's controller, terms "the mass exodus" of fillies to the United States, and that is prize money.

With the exception of a handful of races at Ascot and York, virtually all listed races in Britain are run for between $35,000 and $45,000, less than what most maidens run for in New York, Kentucky, and Southern California. Why would would a British-based owner keep a filly in England when he could run the same horse in American allowance races for more money than he would get for running in British listed races against better horses?

And why would a British owner who is offered a cool $150,000 or so by an American buyer not give in to the temptation to sell? A filly trained in England would have to win five listed races to make that kind of money.

There is a feeling that the BHB's initiative to improve the quality of races for older fillies and mares is a response to Sheikh Mohammed's latest Gimcrack speech, in which he reiterated his insistence that Britain get to work on improving prize money. The new plan to jack up the prestige of filly and mare racing will please some breeders, but it will do virtually nothing for the pocketbooks of British owners.

And so, the welcome exodus of fillies and mares from England, which does so much to improve the quality of racing in America, should continue unabated in the near future.

Right idea, wrong product

A story in Friday's Wall Street Journal reported that the major television networks are in the process reducing their coverage of big-time professional sports like the NFL, the NBA, and Major League Baseball. If that is indeed the case, would this not be a golden opportunity for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association to pull out its big guns in an effort to coax one of the networks into finding a regular weekend slot for racing?

Racing missed a similar chance a few years ago when CBS dropped its baseball coverage. NBC will soon be presenting the Arena Football League to pick up the slack in its sporting schedules. Surely, horse racing must be a more attractive prospect than failed ex-college football players indulging in a version of indoor field hockey.

But then again, maybe not. For what is one to make of the one-hour telecast on NBC last Saturday of the Sunshine Millions? One can make the analogy that those trumped-up restricted statebred races are to Grade 1 racing what Arena Football is to the NFL. When an inferior product like the Sunshine Millions is presented as a major event to the general viewing public, it does racing no good service.

The entire concept of the Sunshine Millions, for which $3.6 million was dished out in races restricted to horses bred in Florida and California, is a giant step in the wrong direction. Such events help to stamp American racing as a provincial version of the racing at tracks like Ascot, Longchamp, and The Curragh. On a day when Santa Anita's Grade 1 Santa Monica Handicap went unseen on national network television, Frank Stronach and NBC were parading their statebred circus before the nation.

Statebred racing is by definition an inferior business. If racing wants to put its best foot forward, it must work to get its graded races on network television every weekend. Last week's Sunshine Millions telecast was a perfect example of putting the cart before the horse.