06/02/2005 11:00PM

Let's construct a new series of classic races


NEW YORK - What is the point of the Belmont Stakes?

As the much ballyhooed "Test of the Champion," in which horses bred to get not much farther than a mile are asked to run 1 1/2 miles, it makes little sense.

As the third leg of the Triple Crown it loses much of its luster when a horse does not win both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes.

As a Grade 1 race in which horses are asked to go 1 1/2 miles on dirt in June of their 3-year-old season - something they will never again be asked to do - it is an anachronism.

In fact, sad to say, the Belmont Stakes has become irrelevant.

Gone are the days when Count Fleet, Native Dancer, Gallant Man, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed used it as an advertisement for stamina of the highest order. So if the breeding aspect of the Belmont has gone by the boards, why ask 3-year-olds to contest a race that bears no resemblance to anything that older horses in America are asked to do?

With rumors swirling that Pimlico may lose the Preakness, it is time to rethink the Triple Crown. The Preakness itself is little more than a carbon copy of the Derby. Why ask horses to do at Pimlico what they did just two weeks earlier at Churchill Downs? The Triple Crown, which, by the way, is a series of three separate classic races not, as many seem to think, a single event stretched out over five weeks, should be a reflection of the nation's racing program. Only when it is can it produce the sort of horses who will later produce first- class winners at the highest level.

With the distances of races throughout America falling precipitously (the average distance of the 42 races run at Hollywood Park during the week of May 18-22 was a paltry 6.85 furlongs), does the Belmont Stakes have anything to do with what is really going on in American racing? It would make sense if there was a series of races on dirt for 3-year-olds and up between 11 and 14 furlongs, but there is not, and there will not be as long as the American breeding industry continues to produce horses intended primarily for sprints.

A radical rethinking of America's classic races would leave the Derby as is, expunge the copycat Preakness, switch the Belmont to turf, perhaps trimming it to 1 1/4 miles, and make the 1 1/4-mile Travers the third and final leg of a new Triple Crown, one that would be spaced so as not to leave a trail of tired and injured horses in its wake.

A better and even more radical reworking would start the American classic season with a one-mile dirt race at Belmont on the first Saturday in May, followed by the Kentucky Derby three weeks later, followed by a 1 1/2-mile turf race four weeks after that at Santa Anita or Hollywood.

A one-mile "American Guineas" would more accurately reflect the abilities of horses running in this country, the Derby would be preserved as is except for the date, and a 12-furlong turf race would reflect the importance of racing on grass in America, just as the Breeders' Stakes does as the third leg of the Canadian Triple Crown. By running it on the West Coast, this new race would have the added benefit of bringing California, where the racing is much superior to that in Maryland, into America's classic mix.

There should also be a de-emphasis on the idea of the Triple Crown in favor of the idea of a series of three separate classic races. This is the attitude taken in England and South America. In France and Ireland the concept of a Triple Crown is non-existent.

With Visa having dropped sponsorship of the Preakness and the Belmont, the initial work in this direction has already been done.

At the same time, we should create a series of genuine classics for fillies in this country, one that would reflect the domestic female game by rewarding the best fillies of each generation. The one-mile Acorn the day after the "American Guineas" at Belmont, the 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Oaks the day before the Derby, and Hollywood's in-place 1 1/4-mile American Oaks on turf the day after the 1 1/2-mile turf race for colts would make a perfect series of fillies' classics.

The newly proposed colts and fillies classics would be a much more accurate reflection of American racing than the Triple Crown as presently constituted. They would also put the American classic season in line with the classic seasons in Europe, South America, and Australia, something that would be a boon to a globalized breeding industry.