02/11/2003 12:00AM

Pope the pitchman won't give up


TUCSON, Ariz. - There is no Eclipse award for persistence, which is probably a good thing. If one more award were wedged between the 7 p.m. salad and appetizer and the 10 p.m. entree at the Eclipse dinner, the glittering assemblage might rise en masse in a hunger rebellion. One famished guest once used his cell phone to order five pizzas from Dominos while waiting for dinner as the ceremony droned on, and was promptly offered a profit for slices from an adjoining hungry table.

Despite such obstacles, there should be an Eclipse for persistence, and there is only one logical candidate: Fred Pope.

An advertising idea man and original thinker from Louisville, Ky., Pope has been trying to give Thoroughbred racing recipes for success for more than a decade, maybe close to two, and is still trying. It isn't that his ideas are rejected. They are accepted and then reworked, tinkered with until they are distorted and miss the point.

I recall a morning six years ago, seeing Fred huddled over breakfast with a group of major racing figures in the dining room of the Gideon Putnam hotel in Saratoga Springs. Wonderful, I thought, he finally has found buyers for his National Thoroughbred Association idea.

Not quite. Shortly after, it was announced that the idea, in slightly modified form, would be pursued as the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. It had the Pope stamp, and it had the candidate Pope says he recruited - Tim Smith - but it was not quite Pope's idea.

Last week, the latest Pope idea, called the Thoroughbred National Tour, or simply The Tour, was unveiled and covered three pages of the Thoroughbred Times. As usual, Pope had thought it out clearly, and as usual he spelled it out chapter and verse, so that everyone in racing could see and understand the promise of what he was proposing.

His idea essentially is a weekly touring Breeders' Cup, scaled down but offering tracks in racing cities around the country the opportunity to put on one "big card," but with city-to-city continuity throughout the season. There would be, perhaps, 45 Saturdays leading ultimately to the Breeders' Cup itself, the grand finale. Pope thinks that if the sport's energies were marshalled into a PGA or a NASCAR-type assault team, 50 or 75 strong, invading the city of the week and selling and promoting the event to media and the city fathers as a major national day of racing, with top horses running on a full card of $100,000 and up races - no maidens or claimers in sight - it could generate a national groundswell and a following for the sport.

No one should sell Fred Pope short. He is a cosmic thinker on the scale of Daniel Burnham, the brilliant city planner who gave Chicago its magnificent Outer Drive and cityscape with his admonition, "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood."

Pope makes no little plans - he figures The Tour could pick up 60 to 90 million dollars through a 4 percent simulcasting share - and he will stir men's blood with his new idea. In fact, he already has: Members of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association already have come up with their own idea of how to do all this. They call theirs the Thoroughbred Championship Tour.

One big difference is that Pope's plan is out in the open, bare and exposed for all to see. The TOBA plan is top secret - "closely guarded" as one writer put it - and details are to come after they see if they can raise the dough (a number of more than $20 million was leaked).

One thing is certain. It will be, as one of its planners, consultant Richard Thalheimer, says, "really complex." Thalheimer is an economist, and he writes and speaks in complexities. He is a pure numbers man, but he can help TOBA put projections on paper.

Another thing is certain. Fred Pope has suggested that the TOBA establish his Tour instead, in partnership with racetracks and the NTRA/Breeders' Cup.

How about a morning line of 60-1 on that one? Sounds reasonable to me.

A final certainty. Fred Pope will not give up. He is Eclipse persistent.