06/14/2001 11:00PM

Keep sophomores with geezers

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NEW YORK - Nearly halfway through the racing season, we have no idea who will be the Horse of the Year. Point Given would win if the polls closed today, but he will ultimately be judged by how he fares against his elders later this year.

There is no uncertainty, however, about the clear winner if there were an Eclipse Award for the Worst Idea of 2001: A proposal to add a new, ninth Breeders' Cup Day race that would be restricted to 3-year-olds.

The idea for a Cup race for 3-year-olds was considered and rejected when the Cup was conceived under the leadership of John Gaines in the early 1980's. It has resurfaced several times since and been quickly discarded, but now has returned from the dead with apparent impetus from two groups: the NTRA, which merged with the Breeders' Cup last year and is exploring new ways to enhance and promote the series, and NBC, which this year began televising the Triple Crown as well as the Cup.

It is easy to see why a Breeders' Cup race for 3-year-olds appeals to these groups. It is a tough challenge to promote and market a single division of horses for the first half of the year and then have that division effectively disappear when the 3-year-olds start taking on the handicap horses in the fall, culminating with the Breeders' Cup Classic. It would be much easier to attract new fans, the argument goes, if they remained focused on a single storyline and group of horses from April to November.

So why not make the marketers' jobs easier and keep the 3-year-olds and the handicap horses apart, racing within their divisions toward separate year-end showdowns in the Breeders' Cup Sophomore and the Breeders' Cup Geezer?

The only drawback of the scheme is that it would destroy championship racing as we know it.

The meetings between the best 3-year-olds and the best handicap horses each fall are not only the most compelling matchups in the sport but also the ones that determine racing's greatest champions. Secretariat vs. Riva Ridge. Affirmed vs. Seattle Slew. Spectacular Bid vs. Affirmed. Alysheba vs. Ferdinand.

Even when the showdowns don't turn out to be as dramatic as those - Thunder Gulch vs. Cigar, or Silver Charm vs. Skip Away - they often tell us which division was stronger and put each crop into perspective. Look at last year's Classic. The showdown between 3-year-old Fusaichi Pegasus and 4-year-old Lemon Drop Kid fizzled, but three other 3-year-olds ran 1-2-3, proving where the greatest strength and quality was last year.

Having a Breeders' Cup Day race for 3-year-olds while still having the best of the crop face their elders in the Classic is just as bad an idea as separating the divisions. Cup races are not supposed to be consolation prizes for horses a cut below the best of their divisions. If the marketers think there is a public groundswell to see Jamaican Rum, Griffinite, and Buckle Down Ben square off this fall, they should televise the Pennsylvania Derby or the Discovery Handicap.

The Breeders' Cup is young enough that changes and improvements have and will be made without violating sacred tradition. Race distances have been altered, and a new race was added two years ago. There may well be a structured series of prep races that could be created to improve public awareness and to clarify what is admittedly a confusing road map to the main events. The NTRA may have some good ideas about that, and it's in everyone's interest to keep NBC excited about the game after its impressive performance in driving up the Triple Crown ratings.

A new Breeders' Cup race for 3-year-olds, however, is not the answer. If the Breeders' Cup is supposed to be the Super Bowl or World Series of racing, why would you keep the divisional champions from their ultimate showdown?

Hold your horses

Speaking of how good a 3-year-old crop we had last year - Tiznow, Fusaichi Pegasus, Giants Causeway, Albert the Great, Red Bullet, Unshaded - why is everyone in such a hurry to characterize this year's division as something special?

The Kentucky Derby, on paper, was apparently loaded with a lot of plausible prospects, so people understandably called it a deep and contentious group. Monarchos ran a better-than-average winning Derby, with Congaree most valiant in defeat, then Point Given delivered knockout blows in the Preakness and Belmont with nobody running particularly well behind him.

The owners and trainers of the Belmont horses kept talking about what a strong and accomplished field this was, which is understandable since they would love to see their horses syndicated for a lot of money. Far too many commentators simply took these self-serving proclamations at face value and continue to repeat that this is an outstanding group.

Point Given, Monarchos, and to a lesser extent Congaree, have fired strong shots on their very best days. Among them, they accounted for the Triple Crown, the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, and Wood Memorial. That's the total accomplishment of this crop. There isn't much beyond those three yet, though that could change. A year ago, Tiznow and Albert the Great had yet to win their first stakes race, and few Americans had even heard of Giants Causeway.

The championship season has barely begun, and we won't know how good this year's 3-year-olds really are for at least several months - assuming they'll still be meeting their elders in the Breeders' Cup Classic.