01/04/2008 12:00AM

Marathon a misfit and a misnomer


NEW YORK - The addition of three new Breeders' Cup races for 2008 at Santa Anita continues the momentum Breeders' Cup Ltd. has been making of late. The new Turf Sprint is especially welcome, although there is really no pattern of graded turf races between five and six furlongs from which turf sprinters can emerge. Thus the Turf Sprint, while a much needed addition, arrives on the scene looking a bit like a tail wagging the dog, but its situation looks solid compared with the shaky foundation of the unfortunately named Breeders' Cup Marathon.

I am the first person to decry the ever shortening distances of Thoroughbred races in America, but why a Cup race at 1 1/2 miles on dirt, or a synthetic surface? The average distance of the races at Aqueduct and Santa Anita between Dec. 26 and Jan. 6 is a paltry 6.93 furlongs, suggesting that the American Thoroughbred has great difficulty getting anything farther than a mile.

The American calendar includes only one such 12-furlong race at the graded level, the Belmont Stakes. What is the efficacy of running a year-end race of apparent championship caliber when there has been only one race under similar conditions in which to prepare for it? And that restricted to 3-year-olds and run in June, 4 1/2 months before the BC Marathon.

Time was when races like the Brooklyn Handicap and the Jockey Club Gold Cup were run at 1 1/2 miles. Along with the Belmont they constituted a pattern at 12 furlongs on dirt, but those days are long gone. Chances are that Marathon entries will be filled by Group 2 and 3 turf performers not good enough for the BC Turf and by older main-track types not good enough for the BC Classic who are probably not bred to stay 12 furlongs anyway.

It can only be hoped that the Marathon will encourage tracks to start carding allowances, and eventually stakes, at 1 1/2 miles on the main track, be it dirt, Polytrack, Tapeta, Cushion, or glass and beads. A committee of the nation's racing secretaries has recommended the same.

And if the Breeders' Cup is an international event we should all be on the same page namewise. Nowhere in Europe, Asia, or Australia is 1 1/2 miles considered a "marathon." Hundreds of horses in Europe compete with regularity at distances between 14 and 20 furlongs, but in America, where a two-turn mile is considered a "route race," anything farther than 1 1/8 miles is deemed a severe test of stamina. Races at 1 1/2 miles and 1o1/4 miles are considered middle distance in Europe, something between what milers and stayers do for a living. A better name for the Marathon from the point of view of the Europeans, who are sure to give the race a long look, might have been the Breeders' Cup Middle Distance. Down Under, where they measure races in meters, it might have gone as the Breeders' Cup 2400, the metric equivalent of 12 furlongs. In realpolitik American terms, its proper name ought to be the Breeders' Cup No Man's Land.

One area where racing in these United States has always lagged behind the rest of the world is that of classics for fillies. In some quarters it is believed that the Coaching Club American Oaks is a bona fide classic, but that idea is belied by the paltry number of annual nominations to the race. Part of what makes a race a classic is the theory that an entire generation of colts or fillies is born with a mind toward winning it. That is certainly the case with the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. So, too, the Kentucky Oaks, a race certainly deserving of classic status on an official international basis.

It would be a good idea if the powers that be twinned the Kentucky Oaks and the Coaching Club American Oaks in terms of nominations, just as the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont are joined. Those same powers could then officially proclaim both races as fillies' classics. The 1o1/8-mile Kentucky Oaks could retain its perfect spot on the day before the Derby. The 1 1/4-mile Coaching Club American Oaks might be moved forward a few weeks to Belmont Stakes Day, five weeks after the Kentucky Oaks. The progression in terms of scheduling and distance would be ideal. Pimlico's Black-Eyed Susan would then serve as a perfect late prep for the Coaching Club.

Thus America would fall into line with every racing nation in Europe and South America as well as Japan, Australia, and South Africa, all of which conduct two fillies' classics, a 1000 Guineas at a mile and an Oaks at anywhere between 1 5/16 and 1 1/2 miles. American fillies, and their owners and breeders, deserve no less.