10/24/2003 12:00AM

Cup doesn't crown world champions


The determination as to which horses will be deserving of the title "champion" moved into one of a number of semifinal stages at Santa Anita on Saturday with the 20th running of the Breeders' Cup.

In the new global era of racing, rarely is there ever run a single race that can produce a clear-cut champion. Yet the lords of American racing in charge at Breeders' Cup Ltd. want us to think that we have seen not one but eight world championship events at Santa Anita this weekend.

Don't believe it. With top-class horses emerging with regularity from Argentina, Chile, Australia, Japan, and South Africa, it is hyperbole to label any single meeting as the "World Thoroughbred Championships." Sadly, the hierarchy at Breeders' Cup Ltd. fail to see the humor in the presumptive subtitle they have tacked onto what is otherwise an excellent day of racing.

Horses from Argentina, Chile, Australia, Japan, and South Africa are all but eliminated from the event. Beyond the great distances that horses from those countries would have to traverse to compete, the Breeders' Cup nominating system precludes many of the world's best horses from participating in the big day on an even playing field.

Detracting from the Breeders' Cup's pretense of a "World Thoroughbred Championship" is the absence of Lonhro, the winner in Australia this year of five Group 1 and four Group 2 races. Also missing are Neo Universe, who will bid for the Japanese Triple Crown in the Japanese St. Leger at Kyoto on Sunday, and Hishi Miracle, whose victories in the Spring Tenno Sho and the Takarazuka Kinen make him the highest-rated older horse in Japan.

Moreover, with Longchamp's Arc Weekend, Newmarket's Champion Stakes Day, Japan Cup Weekend in Tokyo, and the Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin all integrally involved in the production of champions, one wishes that Breeders' Cup Ltd. would tone down a loud marketing concept that misguides America's general sporting public about the true nature of the event.

This year's Cup belies its hyped-up subtitle. There was not a better 3-year-old on the Cup card, or a better 12-furlong horse, than Arc winner Dalakhani. One cannot imagine the winner of the Classic in the same class as Mineshaft, or even Candy Ride. The absence of Azeri and Wild Spirit from the Distaff made that race no better than the Beldame or the Spinster. And if there is a better filly or mare on turf between eight and 10 furlongs anywhere in the world than Ipi Tombe, travels from New York to California, Dubai, Deauville, York, Ascot, and Paris have not uncovered her.

This year's Filly and Mare Turf might have been able to lay claim to being a world championship event, although the absence of Ipi Tombe, Bright Sky, and Zee Zee Top - as well as all of the females from Australia, Japan, and South America - tends to put a dent in that idea.

Are we really expected to believe that this year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner is the best 2-year-old on the planet? Even in provincial American terms, its winner cannot be the cream of the crop. The best European 2-year-old has run in the Juvenile only twice. Each time, he won, and both of them, Arazi and Johannesburg, could rightfully lay claim to a world title, but this year's winner may not even get an Eclipse Award.

The fact is, the world is still too big a place for a definitive world championship meeting, and racing is better off for that. Just as there is a certain art to picking winners or selecting a mare to be bred to a stallion in the hope of producing something special, there will always be a large element of debate involved in determining champions from a global perspective.

The Breeders' Cup adds richly to that argument, but it is not a world championship. A reality check might lead to a new subtitle for next year's Cup at a track, Lone Star, that has never conducted a single Grade 1 race. Something on the order of "Western Half of the Northern Hemisphere Thoroughbred Championships" would fit the bill.