04/09/2008 12:00AM

Far better in the long run


ARCADIA, Calif. - One of the sweetest memories banging around inside this reporter's head was that moment during the Nov. 9 running of the 1974 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Aqueduct, in my first taste of New York racing, when Forego, Group Plan, and the rest of the field approached the finish line on their first time around.

Starting on the distant backstretch, they had gone just seven of the 16 furlongs demanded by the Gold Cup in those ancient times. There were those in the crowd, however, who had lost track and began to cheer, despite the fact that the riders had their mounts snugged down for the long haul. This happens at half-mile bullrings all the time - to jockeys as well as spectators - but it was an odd sound to be emanating from a sophisticated Long Island crowd during one of the game's premier events. What did I know?

The sprinkling of cheers soon faded in sheepish embarrassment as it became clear the race was far from over. Those same cheers rose again with fresh enthusiasm when Forego came down there for real the next time around, winning by 2 1/2 lengths to clinch his first title as Horse of the Year.

The scene flooded back with technicolor intensity last Saturday afternoon at Santa Anita when a field of eight older horses approached the finish line on the grass after beginning their journey at the top of the hillside course. Thinking it was one of the dozens of hillside sprints run at about 6 1/2 furlongs, any number of fans were inspired to cheer their choices as they approached the wire. But then, to their amazement, the horses kept right on going.

In defense of those premature enthusiasts, for the past three decades there has been only one race run at the full 1 3/4 miles of the Santa Anita grass course. That race is, of course, the San Juan Capistrano, which traditionally closes the meet. Last Saturday's race, by contrast, was a 1 3/4-mile event for a mix of second-level allowance runners and $40,000 claimers.

Nothing could have been more retro, especially in this modern age of talented young horses being squandered with 10-second furlongs at the altar of 2-year-old sales in California, Florida and, earlier this week, Kentucky. The treasured definition of the Thoroughbred as being a creature who can carry his speed over a distance of ground seems to have faded away in the face of programs stuffed with shorter races. But lately, gratefully, there has been a flicker of light.

The genesis came last fall during a convocation of American racing secretaries. In an effort to invigorate their product, it was suggested that a page be taken from the past, and that main track races of 11 furlongs and beyond could be offered with reasonable expectations of support from horsemen.

"We were running enough five-horse fields at shorter distances anyway," said Hollywood Park's Martin Panza, one of the group. "So why not at least try longer races. Horses who get those distances are not so popular for stud, so maybe this group could end up staying on the track, and fans could remember who they are. It's also a way to take the emphasis off the 2-year-old in training sales, which aren't really doing much to help field size."

Promises were made among the secretaries, and the Breeders' Cup was approached for support. Thus the $500,000 Breeders' Cup Marathon was born, a 1 1/2-mile event to be run for the first time on Oct. 27, on the main track at Santa Anita, but also raising the eternal question, What happens if you throw a party and nobody shows up?

In hopes of preventing such a situation, there will be as many as 10 long-distance main-track stakes scattered around the country this year in an attempt to create a "pattern" for horses so inclined. California kicked off the series with the $100,000 Tokyo City Cup at 1 1/2 miles (formerly at 1 1/8 miles) on March 29 at Santa Anita and will continue with the $100,000 Gallant Man at Hollywood Park on June 1, over 1 5/8 miles. Del Mar then chimes in with its new $150,000 Cougar II at 1 1/2 miles on its synthetic main track on July 30.

"The series probably would have happened without the Breeders' Cup Marathon," said Rick Hammerle, Santa Anita's racing secretary. "But let's just say that when a group like the Breeders' Cup goes ahead and validates longer races, it makes it easier for racing secretaries to include them in their regular schedules."

That includes Hammerle's use of his 1 3/4-mile grass layout for horses of lesser rank, as well as Hollywood Park's second running of the 1 3/4-mile Round Table Handicap on the grass, on June 14, in hopes that such races will stimulate interest among both horsemen and fans. Richard Migliore, the New York expatriate who spent a lifetime in the East aboard 2-year-olds going nine furlongs in late summer and any number of lesser runners at a mile and a half, rode the Irish horse Victorian Prince to victory in Santa Anita's "mini" San Juan the other day and dismounted with a grin like a kid with a new toy.

"Now that was fun," Migliore said.

It was, and not just for him.