09/26/2013 3:35PM

Steven Crist: Staying within division should be out of fashion by fall


Princess of Sylmar will not be favored to beat Royal Delta in the Beldame on Saturday at Belmont Park, and Orb and Palace Malice face a tough task taking on Cross Traffic and Flat Out a few hours later in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Still, it’s tempting to root for those 3-year-olds if only to reward their connections for choosing to run as underdogs at Belmont in these races instead of opting for easier paydays a week ago at Parx Racing.

This is no criticism of those who chose to run in the $1 million Cotillion for 3-year-old fillies or the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby for 3-year-old males. If you can run for that kind of money while ducking the toughest rivals in your division, not to mention older horses who would be favored against you, you’re supposed to take it.

The fault lies within a dysfunctionally selfish racing industry where tracks with purse money to burn run bloated races like the ones at Parx, sabotaging more important and historic races and depriving the public of the rivalries and showdowns it needs to attract a broader base of interest.

Rich and highly graded races restricted to 3-year-olds should, like the wearing of white shoes, cease after Labor Day. This is the time of year when the very best 3-year-olds should be meeting their elders, and not just once in the Breeders’ Cup at year’s end. Instead, tracks such as Parx and Indiana Downs, which is putting on its $500,000 Indiana Derby for 3-year-olds next Saturday, saw this tradition as an opportunity to exploit by luring top 3-year-olds to a final restricted payday.

This is how you end up with a horse such as Lookin At Lucky, the champion 3-year-old of 2010, running in the Indiana Derby instead of the Jockey Club Gold that year, and that’s why Close Hatches ran in the Cotillion instead of the Beldame and Will Take Charge ran in the Pennsylvania Derby a week ago instead of the Gold Cup.

It’s hard to argue that whatever disruption and damage these races cause to the sport at large are justified by giving a massive turnout of local fans to see big-name horses in the flesh: Parx does not take attendance, but last Saturday the total ontrack handle was a paltry $534,999 – barely half the purse of either big race, and suggestive of a live “crowd” of well less than 5,000. It’s difficult to believe the turnout or churn would have been lower if the races had been Grade 2 events worth $500,000. They could have spent the other million on underserved rather than overserved divisions in the sport that could actually use some richer and more prestigious preps for the Breeders’ Cup – maybe filly sprinters, turf sprinters, or turf juveniles.

Some may dismiss this sentiment as mere protectionism on New York’s part, but racing fans in other jurisdictions would probably feel the same way, given the chance. Would Californians be thrilled if Portland Meadows were so awash in slots money that it was putting on a $1 million Oregon Oaks for 3-year-old fillies this weekend that was luring Beholder away from taking on her elders in the Zenyatta at Santa Anita?

You can’t blame people for taking more money and softer company if someone’s going to offer it, but then those connections can’t complain if they’re not accorded the same respect for winning in the softer spots. Will Take Charge did not take over leadership of the 3-year-olds by beating Moreno and Transparent again instead of taking on Orb and Palace Malice a week later.

Close Hatches’s connections had no right to grouse that they wish Princess of Sylmar had run in the Cotillion after they won it – if they wanted to make a credible run at her for the 3-year-old filly title, they should have run in the Beldame. You can’t have it both ways.

Racing needs more clear paths to championships and fewer ways for the sport’s best to avoid racing one another. Yet it seems to be moving in precisely the opposite direction, and not just here. In the weeks ahead, we’re going to see the world’s top grass horses avoiding one another thanks to the overscheduling of so-called championship events on top of one another: Arc Day at Longchamp Oct. 6, then the upstart British Champions Day at Ascot Oct. 19, just 13 days after the Arc and 14 days before the Breeders’ Cup.

Despite already being weakened by smaller foal crops, fewer starts, and shorter careers, racing seems bent on awarding more trophies and titles than ever, weakening the fundamental premise of putting the best of the best in the same starting gate.