11/02/2006 1:00AM

Synthetic tracks, ESPN spell seismic change


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Regardless of how the races turn out, this 23rd edition of the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs Saturday will be a pivotal one in the history of the series on two fronts: the beginning of the synthetic-track era in American racing, and the migration of television coverage from NBC to ESPN.

Only four North American racetracks have made the switch from dirt to synthetic surface so far, but four of the Cup's five dirt races feature runners making the switch back from synthetic to natural dirt. It is the primary handicapping issue in the opening race on the card, the Juvenile Fillies, in which only 6 of the 14 entrants made their most recent start on old-fashioned dirt. Another six are coming out of the Alcibiades at Keeneland, which was run over Polytrack, while two others will be moving from grass to dirt. Four of the top six choices in the race on the track's morning line are fillies making a surface switch.

Half an hour later, the Juvenile presents many of the same issues. Circular Quay, the morning-line favorite, comes off a defeat over Polytrack as the 2-5 favorite in Keeneland's Breeders' Futurity, a race in which his Beyer Speed Figure declined 8 points from his victory over dirt in Saratoga's Hopeful Stakes. Did he dislike Polytrack, does the nature of Polytrack racing bring horses closer together and lower their time-based ratings, or was he exposed as a closing sprinter who may not thrive in longer two-turn events? Handicappers will have to answer similarly perplexing questions surrounding other Polytrack preppers later on the card, such as Asi Siempre in the Distaff and Kelly's Landing in the Sprint.

This is just a taste of what is to come in future years. In 2007, Hollywood Park and probably Del Mar will run their meetings over synthetic tracks, and by the 2008 Breeders' Cup, Santa Anita will have converted as well. By then it will be about time for the Cup itself to return to California, and the possibility of an all-synthetic-and-grass Breeders' Cup by the end of the decade looms large.

Long after Saturday's tickets have been cashed or torn, this could be remembered as the year that began a complete overhaul of the game as we know it. Perhaps racing throughout the world is headed toward a synthetic future, eventually eliminating the traditional distinctions between grass and dirt horses and placing less of a premium on the jackrabbit speed that has been a key element of the American breed and game. The most passionate fans are already divided on whether such a future will destroy the game they know and love or begin an era of true internationalism and longer, safer careers for racehorses.

The stories of this Breeders' Cup will not be told by network television, as coverage moves to cable's ESPN from NBC, which had broadcast the races since their inception in 1984. Some traditionalists view this as a comedown, a demotion from Super Bowl or World Series status to the home of televised darts and poker, but it may well prove to have its advantages. It is likely that by raceday far more general sports fans will be aware of when and where the Breeders' Cup is this year than ever before, thanks to ESPN's frequent plugging of the event on its popular Sportscenter newsdesk show, a far more fruitful target audience than the reality-show and sitcom viewers who might have seen one or two grudging 10-second promotions amid NBC's faltering primetime lineup.

ESPN will also provide a longer raceday telecast, which in addition to helping the handle by providing a bit more time between races, should allow for more thoughtful and helpful coverage. The Breeders' Cup is a complicated proposition to explain to a wide audience, and NBC's Olympics-style approach - focusing on treacly and irrelevant human-interest stories at the expense of explaining the actual games - was so useless to existing fans that Breeders' Cup always had to produce its own separate simulcast show just to provide basic and crucial information.

ESPN has never exactly been known for its restraint and good taste, and is odds-on to do some silly and over-the-top things on its maiden Cup telecast, but the possibility of more intelligent and informative mass-market coverage is a promising one. Racing people are unanimous in their love for Breeders' Cup Day, and horseplayers will go to bed Friday night with the same anticipation as little kids on Christmas Eve. It's time for someone new to try explaining why that is to a wider audience that doesn't quite get it yet.