09/27/2002 12:00AM

A sticky situation for NTRA


NEW YORK - Will the NTRA/BC ever become the NTRA/BC/TC? That's not one of the topics on the agenda at the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's annual membership meeting in Las Vegas on Monday, but it's an increasingly loud buzz among industry players when they're talking over cocktails and off the record.

To decide that question: Last year, the NTRA completed a merger with Breeders' Cup Ltd., which bailed out a revenue-starved NTRA, ensured its viability going forward, and made the Breeders' Cup races the focus of the NTRA's national marketing efforts. The newly constructed organization has made some nice progress in lending structure and clarity to the second half of the racing season through the concept that all roads lead to the Breeders' Cup, gaining sponsorship and television exposure for those roads.

The unaddressed elephant sitting in the middle of the room amidst all this is the TC, the Triple Crown, which is all that the general public pays attention to in racing the first half of the year and which remains racing's signature event and most familiar and cherished prize. It remains the property of the three tracks that play host to it and to Triple Crown Productions, with its trademarks and valuable television rights completely out of NTRA/BC hands.

Whatever strides the NTRA has made in raising Breeders' Cup visibility, the Triple Crown races have a century's advantage in public recognition. Ask 100 people on the street to name something famous about horse racing, and the top answers will be some combination of Triple Crown, Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, Belmont Stakes, and Secretariat. I will eat this newspaper if a single pedestrian answers "Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships."

It seems counterintuitive that the sport's best-known, best-attended, and most commercially valuable events are not part of its umbrella organization, league office, and national marketer. In the NTRA's 2001-2002 annual report, the Breeders' Cup is mentioned more than a dozen times before the words "Kentucky Derby" first appear on page 12. Point Given was the Horse of the Year in 2001 after winning two-thirds of the Triple Crown and being retired two months before the Breeders' Cup, but is mentioned only in passing in a photo caption on the same page where there's a big picture of Tiznow and Sakhee battling in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

That hardly presents a balanced picture of the year's sport, and is the kind of thing that leads some NTRA stakeholders to say that acquiring the rights to the Triple Crown should be a priority for the national organization. On the other hand, it's not exactly a perfect fit. The Triple Crown runners end up providing less than 10 percent of Breeders' Cup Day horseflesh, at best comprising half the field for the Classic and maybe a sprinter or two. So there's a counter argument that NTRA/BC should be focusing its resources on developing awareness and interest of racing's other divisions instead of trying to raise what some have estimated as $50 million or more for the rights to the Triple Crown.

Perhaps another complication is the likely new alignment of Triple Crown ownership pending the sale of the Maryland Jockey Club to Magna Entertainment. When that transaction goes through, the three Triple Crown stakeholders will be the three titans of racetrack ownership - Magna, Churchill Downs Inc., and the New York Racing Association, the first two now being public companies whose shareholders might be leery of parting with a prized brand asset.

All the fun would be taken away

There's a new handicapping book from England sitting unopened on my desk because I am almost afraid to read it. It carries a catchy title that is both intriguing and horrifying: "Winning Without Thinking." The dust jacket suggests that the book proposes methods of horse selection that are not only completely mechanical but also absolutely forbid the application of thought, judgment, or observation.

It probably doesn't work - systems never do - but let's say for argument's sake that it does. Would it be the greatest thing since free ice cream? Only if the ice cream had all the taste of water.

Suppose someone said that you could be absolutely guaranteed a $100 profit on Kentucky Derby or Breeders' Cup Day but the only bet you could make was the system play. No opinions or wagers of your own. No watching the prep races and poring over the past performances and agonizing over whom to back at what price. No opportunity to win more than $100, but no chance of winning any less. Would you do it?

Me neither.