05/17/2002 12:00AM

Fillies deserve a Triple Crown


BALTIMORE - For all its other struggles and shortcomings, the racing industry as a whole has done a magnificent job of promoting and positioning the Triple Crown races. Attendance, handle and exposure are growing in an industry where everything else is stagnant at best. By every indicator, interest among both regulars and civilians has never been


Then there's the other half of the crop - the 3-year-old fillies. They are as neglected as the colts are celebrated, and no one seems to know what to do about it.

While even the dopiest man on the street can probably recognize the names Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, and Triple Crown, not one in 100 knows the filly equivalents. The first problem is that there really aren't any. We sort of have two filly triple crowns - the "old" one of the Kentucky Oaks, Black-Eyed Susan, and Coaching Club American Oaks, and the New York Racing Association's Triple Tiara, which consists of the Acorn, Mother Goose, and C.C.A. Oaks.

The most casual of racing fans knows that the Derby is the first Saturday in May, the Preakness two weeks later, and the Belmont three weeks after that. Few among the most dedicated fans can even tell you when the five filly races are being run this year, when the last time that either filly crown was won, or the names of last year's five different winners.

It's really a shame because the fillies are even-money any year to be as interesting a group as the colts. Last year's bumper crop included Exogenous, Fleet Renee, Flute, Golden Ballet, and Unbridled Elaine, a much deeper group than the colts, led by Point Given and Monarchos. Yet there was no mechanism to highlight or even sort out the filly ranks, and the division was so confusing that its

championship was awarded to a pure sprinter, Xtra Heat, who did not compete in a single one of the division's premier events.

The current system of overlapping Triple Crown series for fillies simply doesn't work. The Kentucky Oaks comes closest to replicating its counterpart by bringing together the best from each corner of the country. Instead of that being a first chapter to build on, however, the division immediately dissipates. The Black-Eyed Susan is not worthy of even its Grade 2 ranking and routinely fails to attract Oaks runners. Friday's running was little more than a two-other-than allowance race and did not include a single winner of a graded stakes.

The Acorn attracts a better field, but a one-turn mile makes no sense as a follow-up to the two-turn, nine-furlong Oaks. The Mother Goose finally gets back to nine furlongs but is still run around one turn. The C.C.A. Oaks is often a paceless marathon, which many of the division's stars skip, rather than the classic it was once considered to be.

By then it has been two months since the Kentucky Oaks and the division has become scattered and fragmented.

The first impulse is to suggest that a filly triple crown parallel to the colts' version be formalized, consisting of the Kentucky Oaks, Black-Eyed Susan, and perhaps a shorter C.C.A. Oaks moved to the day before the Belmont. Three races, each run the day before the colts' equivalent races, is an easy concept to grasp and to promote.

It fits an existing series, but we all know that if you were starting out fresh you would never design a Triple Crown that involved three races in five weeks. There's too much history and tradition to tinker with the colts' Crown, but not many horsemen are going to want to run 3-year-old fillies that often. So a purely parallel series probably won't fly.

Perhaps you could put the Black-Eyed Susan out of its misery, make the Kentucky Oaks the first leg, something the day before the Belmont the second leg, and conclude the series somewhere else on the 4th of July weekend. There are problems here as well. Such a scheme would orphan two of NYRA's three Tiara races. Also, putting five weeks between the first two legs and four weeks between the second and third is not entirely logical. Still, a sponsored, heavily promoted, televised series with bigger purses and perhaps a bonus incentive might make people get over those concerns pretty quickly.

It took decades for the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont to coalesce into a Triple Crown and there's probably not enough room for a second of equal stature. Creating something more coherent than the current schedule, though, would be a triumphant achievement if it became even half as compelling.