02/29/2008 12:00AM

An idea whose time has passed


If the intention of Breeders' Cup officials was to spark public reaction at the decision to have an all-girls Friday card come the 25th running at Santa Anita Park in October, congratulations. This one is impossible to ignore, at least by anyone writing for this particular page.

Most of the time, fine-tuning a successful enterprise like the Breeders' Cup has been no more intrusive than a touch of spackle here and there on the Sistine Chapel. The big picture still looks pretty good. As a result, a constructive modification like the addition of a turf race for fillies and mares, 15 years into the series, was accepted without much fuss, and for the last nine years it has been a satisfying part of the program.

But when a second day was added in 2007, all bets were off. This was a sea change so radical that only the hard-core horseplayers fell in line, figuring at the very least there would be full, bet-worthy fields and exotics galore. Who cared if it was a Breeders' Cup Lite?

The idea, or so said the people in charge, was to expand the brand. Sounds fine, if you are selling toothpaste or disposable diapers. Expanding the Breeders' Cup "brand" by 24 hours and three events - none of them compelling on paper - smacked of nothing more than a board room ploy to pump up the gate and rake in another day's worth of parimutuel riches.

But like a rickety room addition, with a leaky roof and substandard foundation, the Breeders' Cup was stuck with its new Freaky Friday. Post 2007, it became necessary to doll it up with fancy drapes and designer furniture, at least to draw the attention away from the sagging beams and cracks in the walls.

So - drum roll, please - Ladies Day was born.

"I thought it was a joke," said one racing broadcaster, whose name will be withheld because he/she might want to get work someday on a Friday Breeders' Cup telecast. "And I wasn't the only one. What does that say about an idea when that's your first reaction?"

It says, whoa there - where's your sense of history? The concept of an all-female cultural celebration is time-honored and proven. From burning Salem witches at the stake to jailing loud-mouthed suffragettes, there is a cherished American tradition of using the simple, clear-cut issue of gender identification to enforce certain things we all know to be unshakably true.

Ladies play on Friday. Saturday is for guys. Learn it, know it, live it.

Ladies play on Friday because they don't have jobs. Not real jobs, anyway. Ladies play on Friday because on Saturday they have to take care of the kids and do the shopping because their men are playing golf or tennis or paintball or whatever else their crazy little Y chromosomes demand.

Ladies play on Friday and they'll like it, because they're lucky to play at all.

Besides, who but the modern, hip, ESPNed version of the Breeders' Cup would have the testosterone to go so totally retro? The Breeders' Cup Distaff has been renamed the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic (Chicks, Skirts, and Dames were considered but dropped), effectively summoning memories of a kinder, gentler time when chivalry was king and a man could light a woman's cigarette without fear of punitive damages.

A Ladies Classic at the heart of the Ladies Day card harks back to a time when the softer sex required coddling, when their tender sensibilities needed protection from the harsh realities of the cold male world. Beyond childbirth and the occasional 2,000-mile covered-wagon trek across unforgiving stretches of American wilderness, women were content in their role as a subspecies of men, just as the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint will forever be half the race that the Breeders' Cup Sprint used to be.

Anyone with the insensitivity to protest this new feminization of an entire Breeders' Cup program should count their blessings. Other ideas on that BC boardroom table included bagpipes instead of buglers for the call to the post and ballet costumes on the outriders.

Anyway, it's just empty carping. The Breeders' Cup can do anything it pleases because it only answers to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association - or is it the other way around? Never mind, and don't sweat the historical implications either. The high bar set by such male-mauling mamas as Regret, Gallorette, Ta Wee, Shuvee, Dahlia, Royal Heroine, Pebbles, and Miesque is still in place, and if they want to face the boys for more dough they can do it in any of open Breeders' Cup races on Saturday.

It is a shame, though, to see the best of the female half of the breed relegated to an unproven, low-rated, weekday Breeders' Cup telecast when they had enjoyed 24 years in the spotlight. Bill Mott was once asked about the possibility of running Cigar in the Meadowlands Cup, traditionally run on a Friday night in East Rutherford. Mott was in no way disparaging either the race or the locale when he said, "Cigar is a Saturday afternoon kind of horse." But you knew exactly what he meant.

And so were Princess Rooney, Lady's Secret, Personal Ensign, Bayakoa, Paseana, Hollywood Wildcat, Inside Information, Azeri, and Ashado.