10/09/2008 11:00PM

Spare me, please, 'For the good of the game'


NEW YORK - In these final days before the Breeders' Cup pre-entry deadline Tuesday, we've been hearing a lot about how various owners have a duty or obligation about if and when to run their horses under the banner of "for the good of the game." This is why Curlin is supposed to run in the Classic despite his handlers' lack of enthusiasm for racing on a new synthetic track; why Zenyatta is supposed to take on the boys instead of being odds-on in the Ladies' Classic; why Commentator and Vineyard Haven and even Zarkava should be entered despite their connections' clear preference to call it a year.

The theory seems to be that horsemen should ignore their own expert opinions about what would be best for their horses and run them where they don't really want to, because somehow this will send horse racing to the top of the charts and energize an apathetic general public. In a sort of twisted version of "My country, right or wrong," owners and trainers are supposed to participate in and support the Breeders' Cup because this will draw more television viewers, create new fans, and attract hordes of new advertisers and sponsors.

If there were the slightest bit of evidence that any of this were true, it might be worth considering, but there isn't.

Curlin is the best racehorse in the world and his 4-year-old campaign has been a gift to the sport, but the truth is that he doesn't attract a ripple of interest outside of those of us who already follow the game. His appearances at Saratoga and Belmont in the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup were wonderful old-school triumphs, final steps towards enshrinement in the Hall of Fame and perhaps a second Horse of the Year title, but they didn't attract flies to the track despite unprecedented promotion of him for both races. No major broadcaster sought the rights to the events: The races were available on TVG, ESPN News, and MSG Plus - not CBS, NBC, ABC, or ESPN.

So now a Curlin-Big Brown showdown is supposed to save racing? The 2006 Classic, promoted for weeks as a prizefight between Bernardini and Lava Man (oops, the promoters forgot about Invasor), attracted neither new customers nor deep-pocketed sponsors.

How would running Zenyatta in the Classic help? There's no reason for her to step outside her division. No one thought Personal Ensign and Winning Colors should take on Alysheba, Waquoit, Forty Niner, and Seeking the Gold 20 years ago. Azeri ran in the 2004 Classic but had already won the Distaff two years earlier and been a champion. Zenyatta deserves the right to shine and be crowned against fillies and mares first. Besides, removing her from the Ladies' Classic, a race that pro-tem 3-year-old filly leader Proud Spell is already passing, would make the centerpiece of the new Filly Friday card a completely hollow event.

Barring heavy pressure from Cup officials and a last-second change of heart, Commentator and Vineyard Haven won't be among the nearly 200 names submitted Tuesday. Any sane ranking of the world's best dirt horses has Commentator in the top three along with Curlin and Big Brown, but this Classic isn't being run on dirt and his trainer isn't thrilled with the surface or how the 7-year-old gelding came out of his last race.

Vineyard Haven is clearly among the nation's leading 2-year-olds, but his handlers don't think a West Coast trip and a start over Pro-Ride is the best way to get him to the Triple Crown next year. So much for World Thoroughbred Championships, a term that the last round of Breeders' Cup marketing gurus deemed necessary but that has been sensibly downplayed and nearly dropped in the last two years.

None of this means that the Breeders' Cup is a dud or a missed opportunity, and when the windows open these absences will make virtually no difference to the people who ultimately pay for the event: the bettors who will pump over $150 million into the 14 races over two days. With or without Curlin and the others, it's the best and busiest racing and wagering event of the year. I plan to handicap and bet until it hurts.

It's also the most important in determining the sport's year-end championships, but is and always has been far from absolute in deciding those prizes. If some otherwise unaccomplished and mediocre synthetic-track specialist wins the Classic in Curlin's absence with Big Brown up the track, only the most myopic Breeders' Cup employee would argue that the Classic winner should be Horse of the Year.