09/24/2008 11:00PM

Blockbuster day should be under one banner


NEW YORK - There's never been a day of racing quite like Saturday, with a combined 11 Grade 1 races at Belmont and Oak Tree, each of them a direct prep for a Breeders' Cup race 27 or 28 days later. There are 22 winners of 38 Grade 1 stakes races on the two cards, including such stars as Curlin and Zenyatta, in what amount to national semifinals for the last weekend in October.

It's exactly the kind of day that the Breeders' Cup should be organizing, a day that should be the focus of its efforts to explain the complicated array of Cup races to a wider national audience. Instead, it happened entirely by accident, isn't being coordinated in any way between the two host tracks, and won't be televised beyond split coverage on the simulcast networks TVG and HRTV, and brief coverage of the Jockey Club Gold Cup on ESPNews.

Five of the races at each track are parallel final preps for five of the premier Cup races. The Jockey Club Gold Cup (Belmont) and the Goodwood (Oak Tree) lead to the Classic; the Beldame and Lady's Secret to the Ladies' Classic (nee Distaff); the Joe Hirsch and Clement L. Hirsch to the Turf; the Flower Bowl and Yellow Ribbon to the Filly and Mare Turf; and the Vosburgh and Ancient Title to the Sprint.

It's a made-to-order blueprint for a single national presentation. The races could be ordered in parallel fashion to present each of the pairs consecutively, with post times interlaced so we'd see two of them every half-hour and move from one division to the next. Ginger Punch and Unbridled Belle square off in the Beldame at Belmont, and 15 minutes later it's Zenyatta vs. Hystericalady at Oak Tree. How better could you promote the Ladies' Classic?

There could be doubles and pick threes tying various races together and a final Hirsch-Hirsch-Goodwood-Gold Cup pick four previewing the Turf and Classic. Presenting the two cards as a coherent and compelling Breeders' Cup Preview Day is the single most important thing the Breeders' Cup could be doing outside of organizing the main events.

Instead, we have the 11 races spread out over 4 1/2 hours with haphazard post times, no wagers linking the two cards, and no traditional network-television coverage. Like most regular serious horseplayers, I'll figure out the timetable on my own and enjoy playing and taking notes on all the races, but the entire day will be lost on the more casual fans for whose benefit the Breeders' Cup has supposedly made a series of changes unpopular with existing fans - adding new and marginal races, splitting the event over two days, and running it over a new and untested synthetic surface for the next two years.

On the one hand, Cup officials dismiss the complaints of racing's most passionate fans by telling them to swallow hard and suffer change in the name of broadening the event's appeal. Then, presented with a day overflowing with famous races and horses, it treats it as just another Saturday that happens to include six of its 57 Win and You're In events.

Rather than continuing to beat the drum for that silly program, which continues to award berths primarily to horses who either don't need them or don't particularly deserve them, the Breeders' Cup needs to build on what happened without design this year and make it the cornerstone of its future efforts. It should work with the tracks to take the sport's best existing fixtures and present a coordinated, national Cup Preview Day four weeks ahead of the main event, and secure television time to present a tight, three-hour gala broadcast of a dozen or more major preps in California, New York, and Kentucky.

The focus should be on the name horses in the richest and already familiar races, even if that means ignoring the no-name preps for the no-name new races. If the Breeders' Cup really believes casual fans are so dense that they need the Distaff renamed the Ladies' Classic, it can't possibly believe that those same fans are going to care about the qualifying procedures for the Turf Sprint or Juvenile Fillies Turf.

For nearly a generation since the demise of the American Championship Racing Series, racing's leaders have been talking about organizing big national days of racing that lead to year-end championships. All such efforts have failed for the usual small-minded and selfish reasons, but the happenstance of Saturday's 11 Grade 1's is a road map for future efforts.