01/28/2005 1:00AM

French short-sighted on classic distance


NEW YORK - The reduction in distance of the Prix du Jockey-Club, or French Derby, from 1 1/2 miles to 1 5/16 miles is an act of high-handedness rarely seen in the history of horse racing.

In a move that smacks of self-aggrandizement, Baron Edouard de Rothschild, president of France Galop, the ruling body of French racing, has lopped 1 1/2 furlongs from a major international classic that had been run at a distance of 12 furlongs since its inception in 1836. He did so without offering any viable reasons for doing so other than his will to make the change.

Rothschild, whose England's Legend won the Beverly D. in 2001, was appointed president of France Galop in 2003 after the death of Jean-Luc Lagardere. With his ascension to power, he has brought fresh aristocratic ambience to an organization renowned since the 19th century for its exclusivity.

Rothschild's Napoleon-like tendencies have not gone unnoticed. Since his induction, France Galop's director general, Louis Romanet, for years the public voice of French racing, even under the benign presidency of Lagardere, has been shuffled into the background. France Galop is now the baron's bailiwick. After Rothschild made his pronouncement concerning the new distance of the French Derby last autumn, a handful of French trainers questioned the idea, but after a single meeting with the baron, opposition to the proposal evaporated.

Last week, the European Pattern Race Committee rubber-stamped all of Rothschild's changes for the 2005 French racing season. In addition to the drop in distance of the French Derby, it approved a decrease in the distance of the Group 1 Prix Jean Prat from 1 1/8 miles to a mile, an increase in the Group 1 Grand Prix de Paris from 1 1/4 miles to 1 1/2 miles, and the elimination altogether of the most important French Derby prep, the Group 1 Prix Lupin.

In the case of the Lupin, Rothschild has succeeded in killing off a race that has been won by Dalakhani, Helissio, Hernando, L'Emigrant, and Green Dancer with a wave of his hand. This would be the equivalent in America of dropping the Wood Memorial or the Blue Grass.

To put the French Derby change in perspective, a similar cut in distance to the Kentucky Derby would see the first leg of the Triple Crown slashed from 1 1/4 miles to 1 1/16 miles. Would there not be a general hue and cry if such an idea were even hinted at by Churchill Downs?

That Rothschild's whims were immediately approved by the European Pattern Race Committee is further evidence of that once august body's decline. In 2003 and 2004, it caved in to the desires of the British Horse Racing Board by upgrading more than a dozen listed races to Group 3 status, simply because the BHB wanted to card more group races for fillies and mares. The Pattern Race Committee, formerly notable for its independence, now appears to be firmly under the thumbs of France Galop and the BHB.

This past October, Rothschild lept into France's chaotic daily newspaper scene when he bought 37 percent of the country's most left-leaning national paper, Liberation, for $27 million. That a bastion of France's conservative establishment should be interested in a newspaper that until recently walked arm-in-arm with the Communist Party is one thing, but the involvement of the president of France Galop with a journal that carries racing news on a daily basis raises questions.

When queried by the French racing daily Paris-Turf if there was a conflict of interest involved, Monsieur le Baron replied: "I want to be very clear on this point. The two responsibilities are compatible, and my investment in Liberation will not affect the exercise of my functions as president of France Galop."

Well, if the baron says so, it must be true.

To his credit he has succeeded in raising the purse of the French Derby from $1.35 million to $1.95 million and that of the French Oaks from $600,000 to $1 million.

However, questions concerning the sharp cut in the French Derby have not been answered. It is not like horses who were winning the great race of late have not been top class. Dalakhani, Sulamani, Montjeu, and Peintre Celebre have all won it since 1997 going 1 1/2 miles, so it is evident that the breeding industry can still provide the race with very good winners at that distance.

There is worry in some quarters that the French Derby's reduction in distance will set a precedent. British trainer John Gosden wonders that if this is considered a move forward, what kind of horse are we looking to breed in the future? Gosden said he would have preferred the establishment of a European Triple Crown of derbies - an idea first forwarded by Louis Romanet, but unmentioned since Rothschild's arrival at France Galop.

Gosden voiced further concern that France Galop's initiative could set European racing on the road to American style programs, where speed has all but pushed stamina out of the picture.

That is a point well taken. There is, however, no immediate concern about the elimination of stamina in French racing overall, as the accompanying chart of average race distances at the major tracks in America, France, Britain, and Ireland shows.

The influence of stamina is almost non-existent in American racing these days. Even our Triple Crown participants are barely bred to stay a mile, much less 1 1/4 or 1 1/2 miles. As the chart shows, there are no longer any major American meetings where the average distance per race isn't well below a mile. Even harness horses are asked to stay farther than that on a daily basis.

Let us hope that Rothschild will use his lordly powers to prevent that from ever becoming the case in France.

Measuring up

Longchamp20049.89 furlongs
Ascot20049.05 furlongs
Curragh20048.25 furlongs
BelmontFall 20047.70 furlongs
KeenelandFall 20047.59 furlongs
AqueductFall 20047.37 furlongs
Gulfstream*20057.34 furlongs
Santa AnitaFall 20047.23 furlongs
HollywoodFall 20047.12 furlongs
Santa Anita*20057.01 furlongs

* Through Jan.29