10/16/2008 11:00PM

A truly international two days of racing

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NEW YORK – With 31 foreign-trained horses likely to go forward in this year’s Breeders’ Cup, there is reason for celebration. The list includes three of Europe’s 10 highest-rated older horses in Duke of Marmalade, Soldier of Fortune, and Eagle Mountain, three of their eight best 3-year-olds in Raven’s Pass, Henrythenavigator and Conduit, and, arguably, their best 2-year-old colt, Bushranger.

With the potentially superb Casino Drive from Japan, the Breeders’ Cup will go closer than ever to providing international handicappers with grounds for a valid pecking order for world championship honors. Add Argentine champion sprinter Lady Sprinter, a filly who has never been headed in eight dirt tries, making her American debut for Santa Anita-based Juan Reviriego, and all of the world’s major racing areas save Australia will be represented at this year’s Cup.

Missing, of course, are Arc winner and European filly champion Zarkava, Epsom Derby winner New Approach, and Prix de l’Opera winner Lady Marian. It is unfortunate, but understandable, that George Strawbridge is not sending his sensational 2-year-old filly Rainbow View over from England for the Juvenile Fillies. Arc runner-up Youmzain, probably headed to Tokyo for the Japan Cup, and Arlington Million runner-up Archipenko, pencilled in for the Hong Kong Cup, are missing too, but we will have enough of the world’s best at Santa Anita next weekend to determine many international division titles.

That’s the good news. Unfortunately, Breeders’ Cup Ltd. shot itself in the foot with a politically correct programming scheme that has knocked three of the best races on the Cup card out of their traditional Saturday spots.

The Distaff, pointlessly renamed the Ladies Classic, the Juvenile Fillies and the Filly and Mare Turf have been switched to the Friday all-female day, thus depriving the majority of the world’s racing fans of the opportunity to see and bet on these races in prime time. Instead, the Saturday card will be fleshed out with lesser races like the misnamed Marathon, the Turf Sprint, and the Dirt Mile, a race that will not be run on dirt.

The rejiggering of the two cards was prompted by Cup marketing mavens who thought it would be a cute idea to have all of the filly and mare races run on a day when Breeders’ Cup Ltd. will be promoting a breast cancer awareness day. A very worthy cause, indeed, but skewing the Cup schedule for that purpose will not raise a single extra penny for charity. It does, however, detract from what is supposed to be America’s biggest and best day of racing.

The new configuration of five Friday races and nine Saturday races is also out of balance. Nine Breeders’ Cup races on a single day is simply too much for even the most avid racing fans to digest. The many novice onlookers who happen to tune in to ABC-TV and ESPN on Saturday afternoon may well be mystified by day’s end. And what daily newspaper will have the room to pay more than lip service to important contests like the Turf, the Sprint, the Juvenile and the Mile on such an overcrowded card?

And why does the Breeders’ Cup, having sagely added new races to the program last year and this, and wisely turned the affair into a two-day festival, persist in its Friday-Saturday programming? Is it frightened of going head-to-head with the NFL on Sunday? Look at it this way. Which would attract more attention, a Saturday-Sunday program when most of the country’s sports fans are at their leisure on both days? Or a Friday-Saturday program when virtually everybody on Friday is at work and out of touch with anything that is happening in the sports world that afternoon?

Early odds from England

British bookie William Hill was quick off the mark with antepost prices for all 14 Cup races. One of the special wagers it offers is on the number of European winners. You can get 12-1 on five or more, and that looks like pretty good value considering that it has five Europeans: Halfway to Heaven, Sixties Icon, Goldikova, Westphalia and Soldier of Fortune listed as favorites for their respective races. William Hill also quotes Fleeting Spirit, Bushranger, Conduit and Henrythenavigator as second favorites in their races.

Hill has Curlin as its 5-2 Classic choice with Henrythenavigator at 5-1 and Casino Drive 13-2. In the Turf, Hill goes Soldier of Fortune 10-3, Conduit and Red Rocks both at 5-1, and Eagle Mountain at 11-2. Square Eddie is its 9-2 Juvenile choice with Bushranger at 5-1 and Street Hero 6-1. Goldikova rates 7-4 favoritism in the Mile over Kip Deville at 6-1. Sixties Icon is its 2-1 Marathon favorite. In the Filly and Mare Turf, Hill offers Halfway to Heaven at 9-2, Forever Together, Mauralakana and Wait a While at 5-1 each, Dynaforce 6-1, Folk Opera 11-1 and Pure Clan 12-1. In the Ladies Classic, Zenyatta is its even-money favorite with Music Note 5-1, Cocoa Beach 7-1 and Ginger Punch 8-1.

As usual with the Breeders’ Cup, there is likely to be better value on most American horses with British bookmakers, and better value on most Europeans with the American parimutuel.