10/20/2007 12:00AM

Expand, but skip the hyperbole

EmailNEW YORK - There are plenty of things one can reasonably quibble with or criticize about the Breeders' Cup, but there's one nexus of current complaint that even this inveterate complainer just doesn't get: What in the world is wrong with adding a second day of races to the event to recognize other divisions of the sport that don't have corresponding races on Breeders' Cup Day?

The Breeders' Cup stuck half a foot into those waters this year with three new events that will be run Friday at Monmouth: the Filly and Mare Sprint, the Juvenile Turf, and the Dirt Mile. Greg Avioli, the Breeders' Cup CEO, said at a news conference Wednesday that more were on the way for future years. He didn't say precisely what they might be, but obvious possibilities include a filly-and-mare grass mile, a turf sprint, and a sprint or two for 2-year-olds. It might even be fun to have a Breeders' Cup Marathon at 14 or 16 furlongs on the dirt.

Before you recoil in horror, ask yourself this question: If such a seven- or eight-race program of races for other divisions were run the day before the main event each year and given more traditional stakes names instead of the Breeders' Cup Whatever, would anyone mind? Of course not. It's really the extension of the brand, rather than the idea of some new races, that has led to charges that the event is being cheapened or diluted through expansion.

Otherwise, what's not to like? A second day of million-dollar races with big and highly bettable fields is an entertaining and attractive event in itself, gets the game an extra day of network coverage, and provides opportunities for worthy horses with specialized talents. People who already know and like the sport get another big day of racing, and the general public will be no more confused by the game than they already are. Any true novices tuning in next Saturday will be there for Street Sense and Curlin, horses whose names they learned during the Triple Crown, and they couldn't care less whether there are extra Cup races at Monmouth on Friday.

What the Breeders' Cup needs to do to smooth acceptance of these new events within the racing community is to stop pretending that they are more than they really are. There's nothing wrong with having a grass race for 2-year-olds, but it's simply not a "World Championship" event and didn't deserve the Grade 1 status that Cup officials demanded and were properly denied. How can you have a Grade 1 race in a division that hasn't had a single graded stakes race in the United States this year? That overreaching request put the American Graded Stakes Committee in the position of denying graded status to any of this year's new races. What should have happened was the awarding of Grade 1 status to the Filly and Mare Sprint, a Grade 1 or 2 for the Dirt Mile, and a Grade 2 or 3 for the Juvenile Turf. Cup officials simply have to get over their assumption that any race affiliated with their brand is by definition a Grade 1 event, much less a world championship.

Unfortunately, any such restraint would be out of character. After Wednesday's news conference, Avioli was quoted in The New York Times as saying that "This may be the best Breeders' Cup Classic field ever. It's definitely the deepest." It's not even close to either of those things. It's a terrific horse race with five good 3-year-olds from a strong crop, but it's a small field, and by any objective standard - Grade 1 or classic victories, number of actual champions or international achievements - a little light on accomplishments. You only have to go back to 2004 - Ghostzapper, Roses in May, Pleasantly Perfect, Perfect Drift, Azeri, Birdstone, Funny Cide - to find a clearly deeper one.

Similarly, Cup officials on Wednesday cooed over the "unprecedented" pre-entry of 11 Grade 1 winners in this year's Distaff - a precedent exceeded last year when 13 Grade 1 winners ran in the same race.

These overstatements are typical of an organization that continues to insist on calling the winners of all its races "champions," a word with a different and very specific meaning in racing: a horse who is voted a divisional championship on the basis of an entire campaign, which often but not always includes winning a Breeders' Cup race. Those races are sublime events, and the more the merrier, but it's time to drop the fictions that they're all world championships and that every year's are better than the last.