09/23/2009 11:00PM

Why Win and You're In is dangerous


NEW YORK - In the year 2000, Kentucky Cup Day at Turfway Park featured four graded stakes worth a combined $1 million, and each one featured prominent horses who would go on to make serious noise at the Breeders' Cup seven weeks later.

Captain Steve upset Golden Missile in the $500,000 Kentucky Cup Classic, and ran third to Tiznow and Giant's Causeway in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Spain won the $250,000 Turfway Breeders' Cup, and returned to win the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Caller One, an easy winner at 1-5 in the Kentucky Cup Sprint, finished fourth as the second choice to Kona Gold in the BC Sprint. Point Given, who won the Grade 3 Kentucky Cup Juvenile, lost a photo in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and went on to be the Horse of the Year in 2001.

The 2009 "Kentucky Cup Day of Champions" card at Turfway has what might kindly be called a decidedly different look, a discouraging sign of the times.

The Kentucky Cup Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies have been scrapped this year, and only three races remain. The Kentucky Cup Classic is worth only 40 percent of what it was a decade ago, with a purse of $200,000, while the Kentucky Cup Distaff and Kentucky Cup Sprint offer just $100,000, the minimum to retain their Grade 3 status.

"The cuts allow us to redirect funds to daily purses," Turfway Park president Robert N. Elliston said when the reduced lineup was announced last month. "It is difficult to set aside decades of tradition, but the cuts were inevitable given our inability to match the purses offered by surrounding states that support their racing industries with gaming revenue. If the Kentucky legislature allows us to level the playing field, we hope to return these races to our schedule."

As is increasingly the case these days, purse money is being dictated less by the historical importance of races than by whether the host tracks is one of the Have-Slots or the Have-Nots. The Kentucky Cup Classic is being passed by Saturday races such as the $250,000 Selene Stakes at Woodbine or the $200,000 Turf Amazon Handicap at Philadelphia Park, two venues where slots revenues are boosting purses.

The 30 entrants in Saturday's three surviving Kentucky Cup races appear to include just a single horse with Breeders' Cup aspirations: Hold Me Back, the Lane's End winner and Blue Grass and Travers runner-up and a marginal longshot for the BC Classic. If there's an overflow field for the Classic this year, Hold Me Back might be on the borderline based on accomplishment. No legitimate entrant has been denied a Classic berth since Quiet American was excluded from the overflow field in 1990. That, however, could change in this unusually wacky 2009 racing season.

With the exception of Rachel Alexandra's dominant performances, nearly every Grade 1 race that leads to the Classic has been won by a different horse this season, and there are no dominant runners scaring anyone off. Add in the let's-take-a-shot mentality flowing from the races being run on a synthetic track, and the likelihood of a small raft of Europeans being pointed for the race because of that turf-like surface, and the selection committee's choices and Win and You're In berths could actually come into play.

This makes the designation of sub-Grade 1 races, such as the Grade 3 Washington Park Handicap, as Classic Win and You're Ins particularly dangerous this year. The Washington Park, run Sept. 5, was miles removed from championship-caliber racing. The winner, a recent $20,000 claimer named Gran Estreno, walked through fractions of 52.42 seconds and 1:43.24 en route to a final time of 2:00.61 - for 9 1/2 furlongs, not 10.

Fortunately, Gran Estreno, an Argentine-bred not nominated to the Breeders' Cup, is likely to decline his Classic berth since it would cost him a fortune to be supplemented and he would be 50-1. The horses who ran second and third behind him, Dubious Miss and Wicked Style, are the second and third morning-line choices behind Hold Me Back on Saturday.

It's a far cry from the days when the Kentucky Cup sent multiple horses to the Breeders' Cup. Whether it ever does again will probably have less to do with Saturday's results than whether or not slot machines ever come to the Old Kentucky Home.