07/22/2001 11:00PM

How long is too long? 1 1/2 miles


CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - The Mother Goose Stakes. The Alabama Stakes. These are races that are synonymous with champion 3-year-old fillies. Used to be the Coaching Club American Oaks was in this company, but it likely won't be this year.

The nine-furlong Mother Goose was run at Belmont Park on June 30. The 1 1/4-mile Alabama will be run at Saratoga on Aug. 18. The CCA Oaks was run July 21, so it should have been the perfect bridge between these two important races. But it appears that the Oaks failed to fulfill that function this year.

Why? Because the Oaks is run at 1 1/2 miles, a distance that is exactly one quarter of a mile longer than this race should be run.

This opinion is not offered cavalierly. I have great respect for the history of horse racing, and I hold America's four classic events in high regard. Three of those classic events make up the Triple Crown - the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. I never would support any change in the conditions or the calendar placement of any of the Triple Crown races. That would be heresy. But when it comes to America's fourth classic race - the Coaching Club Oaks, America's only classic event for fillies - it's a different story.

Look at the field in Saturday's running of the Oaks. There was no Fleet Renee, no Flute, no Victory Ride, no Real Cozzy, no Forest Secrets, no Caressing, no Affluent. None of the eight who entered the starting gate had previously won a Grade 1 race. Only two of the eight entered won a graded stakes of any kind.

A strong case could be made that the field that competed on the same afternoon in the Delaware Oaks, a Grade 3 event, was considerably stronger, and that the field for this weekend's Monmouth Oaks will be stronger, too. The purse money in the CCA Oaks - $350,000 - is bigger than what is offered in those races, so that didn't drive viable candidates away. And as far as I know, there wasn't an anthrax scare in New York on Saturday, either. It is clear to me that what acted as a repellent in the CCA Oaks was the distance.

Unless they move to turf, the fillies who compete in the CCA Oaks will never again, no matter how many years they race, be asked to go 1 1/2 miles. Instead of fitting in, the Oaks sticks out like a sore thumb. Instead of rewarding talent and excellence, the Oaks is an exercise in attrition. Such exercises are ugly, and Saturday's Oaks was predictably so. Yes, odds-on favorite Starrer dumped her rider, Chris McCarron, after the start, but that can happen in any race. By midstretch, there was nearly a 25-length gap back to the third horse, and at the wire, the winner had a near eight-length bulge over the runner-up, and then you needed a telescope to find the rest of them. It was 21 1/2 lengths between the second finisher and third finisher. What does a race like this prove?

This is not meant to insult Tweedside, who won, and who, to her credit, got less punch drunk than her opponents. But we aren't talking about Secretariat here. Tweedside's only previous stakes victory came over three opponents in an off-the-turf ungraded stakes race.

The CCA Oaks has been tinkered with before. It was run at 1 3/8 miles from 1919 through 1941, and from 1944 through 1958, and it was run at 1 1/4 miles from 1959 through 1970, and from 1990 through 1997 before the decision was made to stretch it back out again to 1 1/2 miles. Here's hoping that the management at the New York Racing Association learned something and will cut the race back to 1 1/4 miles next year. That way, it can act as a bridge between the Mother Goose and Alabama. And most importantly, the race has a much better chance of attracting the kind of field that befits its classic status.

What next for Charles Town?

If you haven't been to Charles Town Race Track in many years - as I hadn't until last weekend - you would never believe the amazing course that is being plotted there.

It was nearly over for Charles Town a few years ago, and then slots were introduced. Now, racing at Charles Town is in a stronger position than at many other tracks. For example, on Sunday, when four stakes races were run, $2,500 claimers in the last race ran for a $12,500 purse. Sunday at Belmont, $14,000 claimers ran for only $1,500 more. Amazing.

On top of that, Charles Town boasts the presence of the leading jockey in the nation in wins, the locally based Travis Dunkelberger. And from what I saw and was told, Charles Town has a higher crossover of slots to racing players than any other racetrack with slots.

Still, racing at Charles Town is at a crossroads. The quality of racing there is light years better than what it used to be, but even though purses may continue to rise from their present, astounding levels, the quality of racing may have topped out. That is, unless Charles Town's six-furlong oval is enlarged - and that is a hot topic of discussion right now.

Among high-grade horsemen and jockeys, there is a prejudice against a bullring like Charles Town. Good horses and top riders just won't go there because the risk-reward equation doesn't compute. So, if Charles Town wants to take it to the next level by offering an all-star jockey challenge or creating a signature race to attract high-level horses, which it seems financially able to do, the only choice may be to enlarge the track. It will be very interesting to see what happens.