The Breeders' Cup was filled with exciting finishes and dramatic performances Saturday, but the biggest winner at Aqueduct was the concept itself.

The event drew an enthusiastic crowd of 42,568, who bet a staggering $8.1 million on the program. The action was brisk, too, at New York City's Off-Track Betting ($6.4 million), at tracks around the country which conducted simulcasting ($13.2 million) and in Las Vegas.

Not only have racing fans embraced the Breeders' Cup, but so have owners and trainers. The quality of the competition in the seven races proved that the Breeders' Cup has been fully accepted -- here and abroad -- as a championship event.

And the results, both this year and last, show that it is a fair championship test. There has been no home-course advantage: horses from the West did very well this year, just as horses from the East did well in California last year. European runners performed well under the unfamiliar conditions of U.S. turf racing -- though they might not have been as dominant as some of their boosters anticipated.

If any type of horse has an edge, it is a fresh horse. Because the Breeders' Cup is contested so late in the year, plenty of horses have been through the mill by this time and are worn out. Significantly, the best performances Saturday were those of the sprinter Precisionist, who hadn't raced for more than four months, and the brilliant English filly Pebbles, who had four well-spaced races in 1985. Surely, freshness was the key to Proud Truth's victory in the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic.

The 3-year-old had been sidelined during the summer by an injury and had two recent easy races to bring him to peak condition for the Breeders' Cup. By contrast, 9-to-5 favorite Chief's Crown had been campaigning steadily throughout the year, in Florida stakes races, in the Triple Crown series, in the Travers at Saratoga, in the tough New York fall championship series.

It was a wonder that trainer Roger Laurin kept him going so long, and no surprise that he fell apart on Saturday. Were the virtues of Chief's Crown properly rewarded? He earned $1.06 million in his long, tough campaign. Proud Truth banked $1.35 million for his two minutes' work in the Classic. And because his triumph is going to be fresh in the voters' minds, his victory is going to earn him a lot of support for the 3-year-old championship -- a very valuable, bankable commodity when he goes to stud.

In the aftermath of the Breeders' Cup, plenty of these voters were asking each other who the Horse of the Year is going to be.

After Chief's Crown, Vanlandingham and Lady's Secret blew themselves out of contention by losing Saturday, there seemed to be a surprising amount of sentiment for Pebbles. If the filly should win that honor on the basis of a single race in the United States, horsemen would be even further motivated to do what they are going to do anyway in view of Saturday's results: Forget everything else and concentrate on preparing for this one race.

It's foolish to burn a horse out in traditional races such as the Kentucky Derby or the Travers Stakes or the Marlboro Cup when the Breeders' Cup means so much more in terms of year-end championships as well as money.

U.S. racing is going to be drastically affected by the Breeders' Cup in the coming years. Some of the changes are going to be unfortunate, but the Breeders' Cup is going to become the overriding objective of top horses even more than it is now. It's hard to imagine that a day of racing could be any better than that at Aqueduct on Saturday, but it's going to happen.