02/29/2008 12:00AM

Changes dilute Cup's appeal


NEW YORK - The way racing usually shoots itself in the foot is by continuing to do the things it historically does badly, so let's at least give the Breeders' Cup credit for a new approach to self-inflicted wounds: By dismantling the sport's greatest single card of championship races, it is instead taking aim at one of the few things in the game that needed no fixing.

The announcement last Tuesday that the six newer and eight older Cup races will henceforth be jumbled together and then separated along gender lines seems to have bewildered or offended every segment of the sport's fan base. Coming on the heels of the indefensible decision to run the Cup at Santa Anita in both 2008 and 2009 - over a racing surface that has yet to be chosen, installed, or tested - it has created the impression that the nominal stewards of the Breeders' Cup have either lost their collective minds or surrendered them to new-age marketing gurus with a spotty regard for the event's history and appeal.

When the Cup added three new races last year and three more for this year's 25th edition, some fans complained the event had been diluted. Others, this one included, saw no problem with a warmup Friday card of niche races like a turf sprint or a dirt marathon. They obviously wouldn't be true championship races like Saturday's, and might not even deserve Grade 1 status, but what was the harm if they were a discrete appetizer that merely set the table for Saturday's real banquet?

Now, though, there will be no such delineation. We're supposed to pretend that the Turf Sprint, for a division that does not have so much as a Grade 2 prep race on the American racing calendar, is no different from what used to be called the Distaff, the most important race of the year for American fillies and one that usually crowns a champion or two.

The new lineup boils down to one big bad trade: Friday gets the Distaff, Juvenile Fillies, and Filly and Mare Turf - championship races and key components of what has made the Cup such a compelling program - in exchange for the Dirt Mile, Juvenile Turf, Marathon, and Turf Sprint. Friday got Manhattan, Saturday got $24 and some shiny beads. So instead of running the sport's definitive championship races on a single afternoon, the vision of the Cup's founders, we are muddling them up with novelty events, watering down the soup to make it last an extra day.

The idea that an all-filly card of Friday races would somehow appeal to female racing fans also appears to have backfired. Virtually every woman turf writer, blogger, and Internet poster who has weighed in on the new plan appears to find the idea offensive and patronizing rather than charming. The Breeders' Cup did itself no favors on this count by renaming the Distaff the "Ladies Classic," a tin-eared choice of a moldy, loaded word that makes many women wince.

How could an entire Breeders' Cup board of directors, albeit it an all-male one, approve such an embarrassing title? Even if a name change were necessary, which it wasn't, what in the world would have been wrong with Filly and Mare Classic?

Putting aside the insanity defense, the motivation for all these changes appears to be the hope that Filly Friday can become a second huge moneymaker for the Breeders' Cup, just like Churchill Downs draws huge crowds for both the Kentucky Oaks on Friday and the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. No one seems to have told the Breeders' Cup's new marketing wizards, however, that precisely such a hope has been pursued with other racing events and all have been failures.

The two other Triple Crown tracks have tried it. Pimlico has struggled to draw 15,000 people the day before the Preakness even with the Pimlico Special and Black-Eyed Susan on the card. Belmont couldn't even get 10,000 people to come out for a Friday Acorn Stakes the day before the Belmont Stakes despite forcing 25,000 people to buy tickets for both days. Oaks Day is a unique, regional phenomenon, a virtual civic holiday in Louisville, not a blueprint for presenting major sports events on Friday afternoons. How many businesses in the greater Los Angeles area are going to shut down Oct. 24 for Breeders' Cup Filly Friday?

The Breeders' Cup has been a schizophrenic success story: Its popularity and importance within the game have steadily increased along with betting handle, while its profile with the general public has declined sharply along with its television ratings. It's understandable that the Cup wants to make some changes to address the latter. It's just difficult to see how diminishing Saturday's main event, in the longshot hope of bolstering a secondary Friday card, is either a logical or proper response.