09/03/2008 11:00PM

Autumn could use new leaf


The 38 days of racing that began at Belmont Park on Friday used to be called the Fall Championship meeting, two months with series of ancient fixtures in every division that decided many if not most of the sport's championships.

That all began to change with the advent of the Breeders' Cup 24 years ago. Horses who might have raced three times at Belmont now raced only twice, with a third and decisive start coming on Cup Day. Pieces of three-race series, like a Marlboro Cup between the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup, or a Maskette that preceded the Ruffian and Beldame, quietly disappeared or were shifted on the calendar. Many of the remaining Grade 1 races were put on the same two cards, a Super Saturday in early September and a Breeders' Cup preview Day (or weekend) in early October.

And then there was one. The Belmont fall meeting is down to 10 Grade 1 races, and half of them will be run on a single Cup preview card Sept. 27, a day that will feature more Grade 1 races than the two Breeders' Cup Days combined - five at Belmont (Jockey Club Gold Cup, Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, Flower Bowl, Beldame and Vosburgh) and a record six at Oak Tree (Goodwood, Yellow Ribbon, Lady's Secret, Clement L. Hirsch, Ancient Title, Oak Leaf). Oak Tree is running six of its seven pre-Cup Grade 1's that day, and then the seventh, the Norfolk, the next afternoon.

So that fall championship meeting is pretty much down to one Grade 1 race for each division. Only the older dirt fillies still have two, Saturday's Ruffian (now run at 1 1/16 miles, sort of a Maskette-Ruffian combo) and then the Beldame three weeks later. Otherwise, it's the Champagne and Frizette for 2-year-olds; nothing for 3-year-old males, and the somewhat extraneous (shouldn't they be running in the Ruffian?) Gazelle for 3-year-old fillies and Garden City for 3-year-old turf fillies; the Gold Cup for older males, the Joe Hirsch and Flower Bowl for turfers; and the Vosburgh for sprinters. The 10 Grade 1's will be presented over only four afternoons: the Ruffian and Garden City Saturday, the Gazelle Sept. 13, the five on Sept. 27 and the Champagne and Frizette Oct. 4.

The truncation and diminution of the fall meeting was inevitable in the Breeders' Cup era, and few outside of New York would argue that a year-end championship day at a rotating site has not been a net gain for the sport. What no one could have foreseen 24 years ago, however, was the nearly universal adoption of a training philosophy that horses should have four to six weeks between major engagements rather than two or three.

In 1984, Slew o' Gold won the Whitney at Saratoga Aug. 4, then swept the Woodward Sept. 19, the Marlboro Sept. 29 (10 days later!), and the Gold Cup on Oct. 20 before heading west for the inaugural Breeders' Cup. In 2008, Big Brown won the Haskell Aug. 2, but is skipping the Woodward and Gold Cup because his races must be precisely six weeks apart.

The champion 2-year-old of 1984, Chief's Crown, won the Saratoga Special on Aug. 3, then raced in three Grade 1's before the Breeders' Cup, winning the Hopeful and Cowdin and running second in the Futurity, before heading west to win the Norfolk and the inaugural Breeders' Cup Juvenile to cap off a 7-for-9 juvenile campaign that included four Grade 1 victories. Now the Futurity is a Grade 2, the Cowdin has vanished, and it's likelier that this year's champion will make only four starts than run in four Grade 1's.

Until the pendulum swings back, if it ever does, we're probably stuck with one-and-done fall campaigns at Belmont and Oak Tree. Adding or restoring the fixtures of yesteryear would just disperse the talent pool further and lead to more short fields and uncompetitive races. Yet it still seems that there should be more than four of 38 afternoons at Belmont, and just two days at Oak Tree before the Cup festivities begin, when a Grade 1 race is being presented.

One answer may be in enhancing existing races or developing new ones for the other Breeders' Cup divisions for which new races have been added. Neither Belmont in the fall nor Oak Tree has a Grade 1 race for filly sprinters even though we now have an Eclipse Award for the champion of that division. The Grade 2 Gallant Bloom (Sept. 20) is a candidate for upgrading, enrichment, and promotion. So is the Grade 2 Kelso, Belmont's only prep for the Breeders' Cup Mile.

We have a pair of $1 million juvenile-turf Breeders' Cup races, but the only graded stakes leading up to them are Belmont's pair of $150,000 Grade 3's on Sept. 28, the Pilgrim and Miss Grillo. That's a division, along with the ones with new races for turf sprinters and dirt marathoners this year, where Belmont, Keeneland, and Oak Tree need to take the lead in creating meaningful races that will determine starting berths for those events.