02/20/2002 12:00AM

Champions, come home


ARCADIA, Calif. - Everybody loves a parade, and everybody has their favorite, whether big balloons on Thanksgiving, tanks in Red Square on May Day, or the masked and beaded excess of the Endymion Krewe in the midst of Mardi Gras.

You can have them all. The best parade these eyes ever saw took place in Southern California, on a Saturday afternoon in January of 1973, and it was nowhere near the streets of Pasadena. There were no floats, no bands, and nary a Shriner in sight. There were just five horses and thousands of devoted fans, cheering their every move.

There was Susan's Girl, champion 3-year-old filly of 1972.

There was Cougar II, champion grass horse of 1972.

There was Autobiography, champion older horse of 1972.

There was Typecast, champion older mare of 1972.

And there was Chou Croute, champion sprinter of 1972.

Nose to tail, they sauntered past the Santa Anita stands, as announcer Terry Gilligan described their considerable accomplishments. Susan's Girl won the Beldame, the Acorn, and the Kentucky Oaks. Cougar had been the dominant grass horse in the West for two solid years. Autobiography, in town with the stable of Sigmund Sommer and Pancho Martin, clinched his title with a 15-length win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, while Chou Croute beat fast boys in both the Fayette and Fall Highweight.

Of the five, only Typecast was out of training. Her victories over males in the 1972 Hollywood Invitational, Sunset, and Man o' War stamped her as a champion beyond reproach. The plane crash death of her owner, Fletcher Jones, sent her through an estate dispersal. Her next stop would be a farm in Japan.

But first, Typecast joined the parade at Santa Anita, which was brought to mind this week after taking a quick census of the newly crowned Eclipse Award champions. It's a far cry from the winter of 1973, when five of the eight champions took their daily meals within sight of one another.

Twenty-nine years later, you would need a geosynchronous satellite link to track them all. When last sighted, this is where the reigning champions of 2001 could be found:

Point Given and Tiznow are at stud in Kentucky.

Fantastic Light is at stud in England.

Xtra Heat is at home in Maryland.

Gourmet Girl and Squirtle Squirt are training at Hollywood Park.

Johannesburg is in Ireland, dreaming of the Derby.

Banks Hill is in France, gearing up for spring.

And Tempera is in Dubai, awaiting assignment abroad.

Am I the only one who finds this strange? Thoroughbred racing is an international sport, but this is ridiculous. Not one of the four major winter racetracks can boast the presence of a champion. You can fire a cannon through the stables of Santa Anita, Gulfstream, Fair Grounds, and Aqueduct and not hit a single Eclipse Award winner, unless Jerry Bailey gets in the way.

So what? Here's what. The Breeders' Cup has rendered America's championship racing hopelessly international. This can be entertaining, but it is beside the point. The original mandate of the Breeders' Cup - and later the NTRA - was to return racing to the hearts and minds of American sports fans. It never happened. Penetration has been agonizingly slow, if at all. Then, somewhere along the line, the mission statement was lost. The Breeders' Cup became the World Thoroughbred Championships. And, as we know, Americans pay very little attention to the rest of the world, unless they stumble upon CNN, or have the Olympics shoved down their throats.

Racing needs its champions present and accounted for. They need to be accessible as they train, paraded between races, worked in the afternoons. Their names need to pop up in all the right places - gossip columns, soap operas, talk show, movie premieres. USO tours are not necessary. But Oprah would be nice.

International competition has energized a small corner of the American racing scene, but its influence is disproportionate, especially during a season like 2001 when there were so few domestic divisional standouts. The Americans were ripe for a rout, and Eclipse Awards were lost.

Certainly, the invaders can't be forced to stick around. Would you train at Santa Anita when you could bed down each night at Ballydoyle? However, it might be time to require that champions race more than once or twice in North America before they are eligible for a North American honor. That way, when it comes time to pick up an Eclipse Award, they at least will be known beyond their immediate circle of friends.