07/04/2002 11:00PM

Finally, a Road to the Cup

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In 1984, the Breeders' Cup immediately revolutionized year-end championship racing in the United States. Only now, 18 years later, does it seem positioned to have a similarly dramatic effect on the months of top-flight racing leading up to it.

The Cup has of course already had a significant influence on summer and fall racing. Potential Cup horses are handled differently with the goal of having them fresh and peaking at the end of October. Fixtures on the racing calendar that once were year-long targets now serve as final preps for the main event.

What seems different this year is that the sport is suddenly beginning to organize and promote summer and fall racing as a prescribed and coherent path to Cup Day rather than a jumble of individual events. The current holiday weekend of racing is something of a watershed in creating early awareness of the Cup on several fronts:

o is being conducted for the first time and will only grow bigger, not just with each of this year's four pool periods but also in future years.

o CBS's innovative and bettor-friendly "NTRA Summer Tour" racing telecasts are promoting traditional summer races within the framework of a road to the Breeders' Cup, and presenting more European racing in a few weeks than most Americans have seen in the last 10 years.

o Hollywood Park's new American Oaks race is an effort to tap into internationalism and to create a signature race for 3-year-olds headed to the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf.

o A new set of Breeders' Cup rankings for the top contenders for each of the eight Cup races is being issued every week and these rankings are beginning to find their way into some general-interest newspapers.

It all adds up to strong start for giving the summer and fall the same focus that the Triple Crown provides during the first half of the year. It's a positive initiative with strong potential for increasing general interest in a sport that too often falls off the radar for almost five months between the Belmont and Cup Day.

It's going to be a challenge to sustain these initial efforts and there are a few aspects of the current efforts that could be improved.

Futures betting needs two big changes in the years to come. The pools need to be populated with more than 24 interests to improve prices and allow betting on more obscure horses. Also, the pools need to be made available to overseas bettors and bookmakers.

Races chosen for road-to-the-Cup television must truly be the best of the day and most relevant to the year-end races rather than being political handouts to an ecumenical selection of tracks. Some races have unavoidably fallen apart but others should not have been chosen at all and some, like the Hollywood Oaks, are conspicuous by their absence.

The weekly rankings in their first few incarnations have been more confusing than clarifying and need explanation or revamping. If they're supposed to be based on current-year performance, how is Sakhee atop both the Classic and Turf divisions without a victory since the Arc nine months ago? How can he be rated over Street Cry on dirt?

The horses are ranked with numerical ratings that look suspiciously like handicap weights, but it's unclear whether there are age and sex allowances and whether comparisons should be drawn between divisions. Is Sarava at 121 rated a little or a lot better than the older Macho Uno at 120? Is Farda Amiga, off one upset victory in the Kentucky Oaks, better than them both as a 3-year-old filly at 120 and a better and more accomplished racehorse than Swept Overboard (120), Summer Colony (116), and Left Bank (116)?

It will be interesting to see if tracks begin to cooperate among themselves regarding stakes scheduling. Synchronizing national racing has traditionally been an exercise in herding cats, but now there may be some momentum for a coordinated presentation. There are still too many weekends when the same division is splintered nationally among three races that end up drawing short fields instead of bringing the best together for meaningful showdowns.

The conventional wisdom about promoting the Breeders' Cup has long been that the general public was incapable of following dozens of horses in eight different divisions for several months. That may still prove to be correct, but at least now the public may have a fighting chance to prove that wisdom wrong.