10/03/2007 11:00PM

Right thought, but the wrong plan

EmailNEW YORK - There is a tidal wave of important racing at Belmont, Keeneland, and Oak Tree's meet at Santa Anita this weekend, including nearly a dozen graded stakes that are both major events in their own right and key preps for the Breeders' Cup three weeks later. It's a boon for the game that nine races will be televised on national sports networks: Saturday's First Lady, Shadwell Mile, Lane's End Breeders' Futurity, Phoenix, and Champagne will be shown from 4 to 6 p.m. Eastern on ESPN, while Sunday's Ancient Title, Oak Tree Mile, Lady's Secret, and Spinster will be on ESPN2 from 5 to 7 p.m.

The races aren't going to outdraw football in the ratings, but can only help generate a little more interest in main event at Monmouth on Oct. 26-27, where ESPN will be trying to build on the anemic ratings for its inaugural Breeders' Cup telecast last year. Those poor numbers led to a cutback in overall racing coverage this year, mainly due to the cancellation of the weekly "Wire to Wire" recap show, but also to the acceleration and promotion of the new Breeders' Cup Challenge series and its "Win and You're In" slogan.

The additional prep-race coverage is great, and everyone wants to see the Breeders' Cup draw more eyeballs and mainstream media coverage, but it's unclear that this is the way to do it. The problem with "Win and You're In" is that as currently constructed, it is somewhere between benign puffery and outright fraud. The horses who win the designated Challenge races were going to get in anyway on the existing selection method. It is problematic to build an entire promotion around a questionable premise and an institutional regard for forthrightness best encapsulated by a writer on the Breeders' Cup's own website: "Hey, it's PR, and horse racing is a tough sell at this point in time. It has to be kept very simple, and it doesn't have to be exactly true."

The attitude that it's okay to misrepresent how horses actually get into Breeders' Cup races seems to have spilled over into broadcast booths. Last weekend we heard on ESPN that Lawyer Ron was going to "try to deny" Curlin a berth in the Classic, even though Curlin had already wrapped up such a spot months ago. Then a TVG commentator said that the "Win and You're In" system was responsible for the attractive showdowns between Hard Spun and Street Sense at Turfway and between Curlin and Lawyer Ron at Belmont, when in fact it had absolutely nothing to do with those horses running in those races.

It amounts to focusing on the entirely wrong thing. Getting a berth in a Breeders' Cup race has rarely been an issue for marquee horses, and when races are oversubscribed we already have both a point system and a selection panel that have never failed to give spots to the winners of the races now being advertised as WAYIs. This choice of focus also has the unfortunate consequence of shining yet more light on the whole messy issue of Breeders' Cup eligibility and supplemental fees, since many of the winners aren't really in when they win, unless their owners also cough up large penalty fees.

If Breeders' Cup and ESPN are committed to the idea, they at least should designate the best and most important races on the racing calendar in each division as WAYIs. The races should be judiciously chosen with some internal logic and consistency rather than the slapdash, arbitrary way they were matched to an existing ESPN television schedule.

There is no plausible reason that Saturday's Grade 3 Phoenix Handicap at Keeneland should automatically qualify a horse for the Breeders' Cup Sprint when the Grade 1 Forego at Saratoga or the Grade 1 Smile at Calder did not. Saturday's First Lady, a one-mile grass race for fillies, has no corresponding Breeders' Cup race but the winner gets a berth in the Filly and Mare Turf at 11 furlongs, a race for which few if any entrants are being considered. But it's in the same place that the ESPN cameras will be Saturday, and that's all that seems to matter. Saturday's Champagne is a WAYI but the Frizette half an hour later isn't, and solely because no one could figure out how to stuff it into the telecast.

And what's going to be the answer when one of the hypothetical newcomers attracted to the sport by the Breeders' Cup Challenge asks why the Kentucky Derby and Preakness aren't WAYI races? Is it because they're not good enough races, or because they're televised on another network, or because the Derby and Preakness winners get to run in the Breeders' Cup anyway?