11/23/2001 12:00AM

Don't crown champions prematurely


NEW YORK - Why are some people in such a hurry to declare the racing season over as soon as the "Official" sign goes up on the Breeders' Cup Classic?

There's a natural letdown every year just after the Breeders' Cup, a perfectly legitimate hangover after what's usually a great racing and gambling party. Most of the sport's titles and champions have been determined, and the next big thing that regularly captures the casual fan's imagination is the start of the road to the Triple Crown two months later.

There is, however, plenty of entertaining, and frequently meaningful, racing in between. A week ago, the De Francis Dash drew Xtra Heat and Kona Gold and could have tilted an Eclipse division or two. This holiday weekend alone, Unbridled Elaine, Spain, and Val Royal turned up in Churchill Downs and Hollywood Park races with possible championship implications, and in other years races such as the Remsen or Hollywood Futurity have been as revealing as the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

That makes it even more surprising that we're hearing the annual argument about a need for early closure to the racing season. In this week's Thoroughbred Times, the usually astute Mark Simon argues that racing should elect its champions "immediately" after the Breeders' Cup (perhaps while waiting for traffic to clear after the nightcap?) and announce them as promptly.

"For all intents and purposes, practical or otherwise, the racing season ends on Breeders' Cup day," Simon wrote. "That was October 27. Anything that happens afterward should not have an effect on divisional championships. While tracks that hold graded stakes races would like to believe their races have meaning in year-end championships, they do not. And they should not. The racing season is set up to conclude with the World Thoroughbred Championships."

The desire to impose rigid order upon the determination of racing's champions is driven by some marketeers in the industry who think that the Breeders' Cup becomes more important if it can be made as much as possible like the Super Bowl and the World Series - a clear-cut championship game that automatically determines winners and losers and wraps a defined season with a big red bow.

The problem with that line of thinking is that racing, by its very nature, never has and never will work that neatly. Some consider this a liability, but at least on a purely sporting level, it can also be seen as a unique asset.

The question of the best horse usually cannot be settled in a single race, no matter how hard a promoter may insist otherwise. The Kentucky Derby winner is frequently not the best

3-year-old, and the game affords plenty of other opportunities to illustrate that. Similarly, plenty of horses who failed in the Breeders' Cup have been rightfully recognized as champions on the basis of their overall record. The best horse in any division needs to prove his worth over a season, not by winning a specific race, a process that is both fairer and more forgiving than trying to boil things down to a single confrontation.

The Breeders' Cup is a wonderful mechanism for forcing most of these issues, but it will not be made better by mandating that nothing that follows is allowed to count. If a division remains unsettled, why would you want to prevent a rubber match? How would doing so possibly help the game or even Breeders' Cup Day? Would a single additional person suddenly care more about the Cup if there were no De Francis Dash three weeks later? If anything, it works the other way, and racing came out a net winner: More people and attention were devoted to racing on Nov. 17 because the Breeders' Cup Sprint had raised interest in the Dash.

Much of the desire for a quick official may stem from belief in the abstract notion that sports seasons need closure. Beyond the Eclipse Awards issue, there are plenty of people who think the sport should shut down more often, that winter racing should be abolished above the palm-tree line, that the game needs well-defined seasons. If you feel that way, feel free to take a break, but why should the fans who want to gamble and the owners and trainers with horses ready to run be deprived of the action?

Racing is a year-round game and there's no turning back. The racing year ends when the calendar year does, and the championship season runs 365 days. There's nothing wrong with filling out your Eclipse ballot while you have a hangover, but Jan. 1 works just fine for that, and it's a lot fairer than Oct. 28.