09/28/2001 12:00AM

For this championship event, it's a small world

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NEW YORK - The quixotic transformation of the Breeders' Cup into the World Thoroughbred Championships is weighed down by a heavy case of hyperbole.

By definition, a world championship event is one that is not only open to all comers, but also one, like soccer's World Cup, to which every worldwide participant of a sport necessarily aspires.

On both counts, the Breeders' Cup comes up short.

To begin with, the Breeders' Cup, although it has the potential to be open to every Thoroughbred in the world, has thus far failed to capture the imagination of breeders and horsemen in South America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the Far East.

Rarely are horses that have been bred in any of those places nominated to the Cup. Only on rare occasions have horses from those regions been supplemented to a Cup race.

Just as importantly, the Breeders' Cup does not necessarily hold the same revered place in the hearts of foreign-based trainers and owners that it has for their American counterparts.

Not infrequently, we do see the best European-trained horses in the Cup, but just as often we do not. Sometimes a French or British trainer will determine that his Breeders' Cup candidate is not suited by the track upon which the Cup will be run. Sometimes he has a fear of firm ground. Sometimes he prefers completing a horse's season in a European championship event.

And it must be remembered that most of the rest of the world outside of North America runs virtually all of their most important races on turf, a surface on which only three of the eight Breeders' Cup races are run.

Moreover, a world championship must possess the aura of a contest which will prove conclusively who is the best man, woman, team, or horse. On that score, the Breeders' Cup might be seen to qualify perhaps half of the time. However, when that does happen to be the case, the race in question is almost always for a dirt championship.

Sunday, Ascot will run the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, a race which, often as not, determines Europe's champion miler. But no one in England would dream of automatically declaring the QEII a world championship event, as the results of races such as the Prix du Moulin, Prix Jacques le Marois, and the Sussex Stakes must also be taken into account.

In fact, the Breeders' Cup is just one of a number of big international race days which determine so-called world champions. One of its many competitors is Arc Day, Oct. 7 at Longchamp. The Parisian track will run six Group 1 races that day. The European, and perhaps the world champion, at 1 1/2 miles is usually determined in the Arc. The Prix de l'Abbaye frequently produces Europe's best sprinter on turf. The Grand Criterium and the Prix Marcel Boussac are France's leading juvenile events and they frequently attract top 2-year-olds from Britain and Ireland. The Prix de l'Opera is on a par with the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, and the Prix du Cadran ranks with the Ascot Gold Cup as the world stayers championship.

A week before the Breeders' Cup, on Oct. 20, Newmarket will run what is probably the best 1 1/4-mile turf race in the world, the Champion Stakes. On the same day, they run the Dewhurst Stakes, a seven-furlong race that is widely recognized as the best juvenile race in Europe.

Then there is the Japan Cup, which will be run this year at Tokyo on Nov. 25. A 1 1/2-mile turf event, it is as good as the Arc in any given year and better than the Breeders' Cup Turf in most years, not least because it attracts horses not only from Europe and America, but from Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand as well.

And the increased prize money offered by the Hong Kong Jockey Club for its four big races which will be run this year on Dec. 16 now produces winners in the sprint, mile,

1 1/4-mile and 1 1/2-mile divisions which go a long way towards determining championship honors.

All of which illustrates the miscalculation made by officials at Breeders' Cup Ltd. in declaring their event to be a world championship. In their effort to give their big day a marketing boost, Breeders' Cup officials have underestimated the values of dozens of championship events around the world.