10/31/2008 12:00AM

Reluctant bettors bad sign for Breeders' Cup

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NEW YORK - After the fifth race at Santa Anita on Oct. 25, the Breeders' Cup had the equivalent of a 10-length lead turning for home.

With 15 of the 21 races of the two-day event in the books, handle was up more than $35 million from a year ago after the same number of races at Monmouth. Granted, there were three new Breeders' Cup races that hadn't existed in 2007, and there had been two perfect rather than miserable days of weather. Still, it would be hard to quibble with what seemed headed for a $50 million year-over-year gain.

Then the bottom fell out. Betting on the last six races of the day was down $28 million from a year ago. By day's end, commingled Breeders' Cup Saturday handle totaled $102 million, compared with $112 million at Monmouth in 2007 and $136 million for the one-day Cup at Churchill in 2006.

That drastic falloff in the homestretch included declines of more than $6 million in bets on, or ending with, the Breeders' Cup Classic. The $3 million guaranteed pick six fell from $3.28 to $2.88 million, and the pick four ending with the Classic tumbled from $3.16 million to $2.32 million.

What happened? The Breeders' Cup has pronounced the new alignment of the races a success, citing a 5 percent gain in gross two-day handle, and saying that any gain at all was welcome in the current economic climate. Most reasonable people, however, expected a much sharper gain given the site, the weather, and three additional Cup races. Also it is difficult to argue that general economic concerns suddenly took hold only in the middle of Saturday's card.

An alternate theory is that the betting public rebelled at the absence of such Saturday 2007 races as the Distaff, Juvenile Fillies, and Filly and Mare Turf, which were moved to Friday, and at their replacement with non-championship events such as the Juvenile Turf. It's also possible that they were wary of investing more heavily in a race such as the Classic, which like seven of the other 13 Cup races was contested on a new Pro-Ride surface with which they were far less comfortable and confident.

The footing, groomed to produce even faster times than dirt tracks, in some ways proved less of a factor throughout the two days than some had expected. The Pro-Ride races were not wacky lotteries but generally formful events where the best horses usually prevailed, such as Zenyatta, Stardom Bound, Midnight Lute, and Midshipman. While I think Indian Blessing would have beaten Ventura in the Filly and Mare Sprint and Curlin would have won the Classic had those races been on dirt, the victors were proven and worthy Grade 1 performers, not random or default winners.

People saying that this Breeders' Cup marked the end of dirt racing as we know it are being as premature as the California bureaucrats who mandated synthetic surfaces rather than fixing their dirt tracks. After next year's Pro-Ride encore, the Cup will return to dirt racing at Churchill in 2010 and probably at Belmont in 2011, neither of which is even being considered for a synthetic conversion. No other American tracks have announced plans to change surfaces, and it's as likely that synthetics will have disappeared altogether in a decade as that they will be any more prevalent. We're in the midst of an Alice in Wonderland debate about synthetics, with absolutely no reliable and meaningful data to support the early claims of greater safety.

It's a shame that Curlin was deprived of a fair chance to defend his Classic title on the surface that American horses have been bred and raced to excel over for centuries. The argument that "a good horse should be able to run over anything" is simpleminded nonsense contradicted by racing results every day. With a few magnificent exceptions, horses of world-class ability over dirt are simply not as dominant on grass or synthetics, which generally penalize early speed while rewarding late bursts. You can prefer one to the other, but it's just silly to pretend they're the same.

We're stuck, for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, with running two straight Breeders' Cups on Pro-Ride. That's not a reason to declare the end of the dirt era, which will return to the Cup in 2010. The more immediate question is whether the betting public that virtually walked away from the second half of Breeders' Cup Saturday will return sooner than that.