10/28/2009 11:00PM

Small fields for traditional BC races troubling

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NEW YORK - There will be a slightly different look and feel to the order of this year's Breeders' Cup races next Friday and Saturday at Oak Tree, due to a factor that is a daily challenge to American racetrack operators: Reconciling the tradition of running races in ascending order of importance with the parimutuel reality that handle suffers amid short fields. The imperative to drive handle usually prevails, which is why an increasing number of Grade 1 races with small fields and heavy favorites have been buried in the early portions of race cards in New York and California this year.

This really hasn't been an issue with the Breeders' Cup in the past, but it is this year, due to two factors. First, several of the richest and most prominent Cup races drew unusually small fields this year. Second, the Breeders' Cup is trying to avoid a repeat of last year's discouraging betting patterns, when wagering suddenly dropped off in the middle of Saturday's card as if patrons had run out of energy, cash, or both.

Half of the eight Breeders' Cup races that offer purses of $2 million or more this year drew single-digit fields. On Friday's lineup, what were scheduled to be the day's two climactic races came up lighter than usual. The Filly and Mare Turf drew just eight first-preference pre-entries, and the Ladies' Classic drew just seven, even in the likely absence of Zenyatta.

Both races are high on quality. The eight in the Filly and Mare Turf include six Grade 1 stakes winners who this year alone have accounted for every American Grade 1 race over a mile in the division - the Beverly D., Diana, Flower Bowl, Gamely, Mabee, and Yellow Ribbon. It's got the defending Eclipse and race champion in Forever Together, and one of the field's only two non-Grade 1 winners is Maram, who won last year's inaugural Juvenile Fillies Turf.

It's a terrific race, perhaps the purest championship showdown over the two days and fully deserving on aesthetics to be the penultimate Cup race of the day before the Ladies' Classic. But the prospect of ending Mostly Filly Friday with an eight-horse Filly and Mare Turf and a seven-horse Ladies' Classic jolted Cup officials into separating the two races with the newer Filly and Mare Sprint, solely because it drew a field of 10.

They considered doing the same thing with the males on Saturday when the $3 million Breeders' Cup Turf came up with a field of just eight that might shrink even further by post time. They finally decided to leave it where it has been for 25 years, right before the Classic, but made a different switch, again to avoid two short fields in succession.

Last year, the Turf and Classic were preceded by the Sprint, but this year the Sprint drew just nine, and they wanted to avoid back-to-back races before the Classic with fields of just nine and eight. As a result, the Sprint has been moved all the way back to the third of eight Cup races on the Saturday card, and its slot before the Turf and Classic has been given to the Dirt Mile, which is in just its third running and does not determine any championships - but has a field of 12.

While the changes were made in hopes of boosting handle, they've created a pair of Saturday pick fours that give each sequence a little more definition than in the past. The first four Cup races emphasize sprinters and juveniles - the Juvenile Turf, the Turf Sprint, the Sprint, and the Juvenile. The late pick four consists of the two Miles and the two richest races: the Mile, Dirt Mile, Turf, and Classic. The Ultra Pick Six comprises the Sprint, Juvenile, Mile, Dirt Mile, Turf, and Classic. Under the circumstances, these lineups seem like a reasonable compromise between quality and quantity, presenting increasingly more important races as the days unfold without sticking any two of the four short fields next to each other.

Perhaps what's most troubling about the situation is the small size of those four fields - only 32 horses for the Filly and Mare Turf, Ladies' Classic, Sprint, and Classic, four races worth $9 million that only three years ago were half of the entire Breeders' Cup schedule. (Interestingly, the 166 first-preferences pre-entries worked out to exactly 83 for the eight old Cup races, an average of 10.3 per race, and 83 for the six that have been added since 2006, an average of 13.8 per race.)

It used to be that the Breeders' Cup was the one racing event of the year where daily concerns about insufficient entries and race placement were never an issue because fields were as overflowing as the Cup's coffers. Now that too has changed.