10/31/2003 1:00AM

Naming champs not cut and dried

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The campaign to get people to call the Breeders' Cup the World Thoroughbred Championships has been a failure for two reasons. The first is that people rarely choose eight new syllables over three familiar ones, especially when three is the magic number for so many other like-minded events, such as the Super Bowl, World Series or Stanley Cup.

The other is that the Breeders' Cup really isn't the same as those other three-syllable showdowns. It's the greatest day of racing in the world each year, but no matter what you call it, it is not necessarily a day of championships. Just look at this year's results.

Of the nine horses who landed in the winner's circle in the Cup races, only Halfbridled is a cinch to be honored as a champion with an Eclipse Award at season's end. Either Islington or Six Perfections will win the female grass title, and Action This Day and Cajun Beat are possible winners of close votes, but so are horses who were soundly beaten, including Sightseek, Aldebaran, Cuvee, Storming Home, and Funny Cide. In addition, horses who didn't even participate, led by Mineshaft, Empire Maker, and Azeri, are worthy contenders for championships despite not competing in the World Thoroughbred Championships.

This was the 20th Breeders' Cup, and it will have the same outcome on the sport's biggest title as the first Cup, back in 1984. That year, when Slew o' Gold was beaten in the Classic, the Horse of the Year title went to the absent John Henry. It will happen again this season, and rightly so, when Mineshaft is named the Horse of the Year for 2003.

Is this a serious problem that is hurting the event and preventing racing from reaching a wider audience? Some marketers seem to think so, though it is difficult to imagine that a single additional viewer would have tuned in if told that every race winner was going to get a trophy at a private dinner in January. Others in the industry have proposed that Eclipse voting be scrapped and championships awarded automatically on a point system for winning specified races and perhaps demanding an appearance in the Cup.

This is a terrible idea, born only of frustration that an event can not live up to a name it should never have been given. Pleasantly Perfect is a perfectly pleasant racehorse, but to call him a champion and give him a title that Mineshaft deserves, on the basis of a single important victory or because Mineshaft was injured after the end of a long campaign, would be absurdly unfair.

Maybe there's a system that would still leave Mineshaft on top, but there are always going to be glaring exceptions. Automatic systems produce unjust assessments, from misleading computer-generated speed figures to graded-stakes criteria that make the Fountain of Youth a Grade 1 event to Kentucky Derby eligibility rules that qualify every second-rate horse in Dubai. Subjectivity and human intervention are not drawbacks but desirable checks and balances. How many college football fans are thrilled with the rigid determinism of the Bowl Championship Series?

Rather than viewing the lack of automatically definitive championship races as a problem, racing should embrace this ambiguity as part of the richness and complexity of the sport's appeal. The post-Cup arguments over which horses deserve championships are entertaining puzzles that spark lively discussion as the season winds down, add an element of suspense to the announcement of the awards, and ultimately lead to more thoughtful and compassionate choices than any mechanical system could produce.

Racing can be an untidy game, but that is not necessarily a bad thing in an increasingly oversimplified and unforgiving world where everything gets reduced to a single big moment or sound bite. It is a credit to this game that a Mineshaft can be honored for a season's worth of excellence whether or not he ran in one particular race, whatever its name.