06/28/2001 11:00PM

Breeders' Cup name game

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So, who do you like in the World Thoroughbred Championships Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile?

It's better than 1-10 that this mouthful will never be spoken, despite the announcement this past Tuesday that the Breeders' Cup (which is now a joint operating entity with the National Thoroughbred Racing Associations) is adding a new brand (World Thoroughbred Championships) and is trying to add some sponsors (Bessemer Trust volunteered to go first, to get the ball rolling) to those eight races each fall that sometimes, but not always, determine racing's champions.

To summarize: BC/NTRA has added a WTC and a BT to the BC because market research showed that the public was confused.

It's tempting to finish this song with a hearty M-O-U-S-E, but there's actually some meat at the bottom of this alphabet soup. Beneath the gobbledygook of rebranding and synergy and strategic alliances lies some potentially good news for the game.

The real substance consists of increased television exposure and promotion, the lack of which has been a major factor in racing's steady loss of prominence. The sport's tragic decision to withhold its daily product from the airwaves in the early days of television, when there was a desperate need for programming, can be seen as the beginning of the sport's long decline.

We are now well into the second generation of children who grow

up in a television-centric world where there are thousands upon thousands of hours of nationally televised baseball, football, basketball, hockey, golf, and tennis and just a handful of racing broadcasts. The first generation of racing-deprived children are now running the nation's television networks, newspapers, and advertising agencies, and it's no surprise that racing flies well below their radar.

Out of nowhere, though, racing is making a little noise. The truly spectacular rise in the ratings for this year's Triple Crown races - a 52 percent aggregate gain over last year, due to superior scheduling and promotion by NBC - has created genuine buzz in the television industry. So in the months ahead, racing will be getting wider exposure than ever, with a series of juvenile races on CNBC; a revamped and heavily promoted "Road to the WTC" series on ESPN; the Champions series of handicap races on CBS; Emirates World Series race coverage on ESPN News; and an added half-hour of NBC airtime for both WTC/Breeders' Cup Preview Day and the big day itself.

None of this will have an immediate effect on the sport's underlying woes. Pimlico set records on Preakness Day but just cut 22 stakes from its schedule. Belmont Stakes attendance continues to soar but total attendance at Belmont Park is down more than 25 percent in a decade. The game cannot indefinitely rely on a dwindling base of regular customers to increase its per-capita spending each year through yet more simulcasting.

Racing still needs to be promoted at a grass-roots level as well, and both its trickle-down and build-up programs need to stress the challenges and joys of handicapping as well as the sports-fan intrigue of stakes-level showdowns. More airtime is a great start, but it is an opportunity rather than an answer in itself.

Essence of a champion

The name change, or expansion, seems like an imperfect answer to a legitimate problem.

"Breeders' Cup" was never a great name. Its greatest virtue was its brevity, a two-word, three-syllable phrase like World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, Final Four, and Triple Crown. It failing was its parochialism in stressing just one segment of the game, the people putting up the money, rather than the event or the actual participants.

World Thoroughbred Championships attempts to correct that and does a better job of identifying the event, but has its own problems. It is a cumbersome, three-word, eight-syllable, unmemorable generic construction that seems highly unlikely to slip into common usage. It's a far better descriptive subtitle than marquee name.

It also raises an issue sure to make sponsors and promoters cringe. Racing is virtually alone in the sports world in that the winner of the biggest event, or any particular race, for that matter, is not automatically recognized as the world champion. The word "champion" has a very specific meaning in racing: the winner of an Eclipse Award as the best of his or her division. Wild Again, Proud Truth, Skywalker, Arcangues, Concern, Alphabet Soup, Awesome Again, and Cat Thief all won Breeders' Cup Classics but none of them was a champion.

Racing's system of thoughtfully selecting its true champions by ballot at year's end based on an entire season of sport is one of its best attributes and goes to the heart of what the game is all about. The fragility of horses and the vagaries of racing luck demand a system that includes forgiveness for a missed race or a stumble at the start. No matter what you call it, winning a Breeders' Cup race does not necessarily make you a world thoroughbred champion.