09/24/2009 11:00PM

Road to Cup needs better packaging


NEW YORK - Dedicated horseplayers may want to use this last Sunday of September, when the biggest race in North America is the Grade 3 British Columbia Derby in Vancouver, to polish off their outstanding domestic chores or stroll in the park. Once October begins, their weekends are about to get a lot busier.

The little breather of top-notch racing following the closing of Del Mar and Saratoga earlier this month is about to end with a vengeance. Current training fashion dictates that horses must have their final start before the Breeders' Cup either four or five weeks before the event, so virtually every major race that leads to the Cup is on one of the next two weekends.

There hasn't been a Grade 1 race in the United States since the Garden City and Ruffian at Belmont on Sept. 12, but starting next Saturday there will be 20 in a span of just eight days:

* Oct. 3: Beldame, Flower Bowl, Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Vosburgh, all at Belmont.

* Oct. 4: Oak Leaf and Norfolk at Oak Tree.

* Oct. 9: Alcibiades at Keeneland.

* Oct. 10: Champagne, Frizette, and Jamaica at Belmont; First Lady, Breeders' Futurity, and Shadwell Mile at Keeneland; Goodwood, Lady's Secret, and Yellow Ribbon at Oak Tree.

* Oct. 11: Spinster at Keeneland; Ancient Title and C.L. Hirsch Turf at Oak Tree.

That's 17 percent of the entire year's 115 Grade 1 races in just an eight-day span. Don't blink or you'll miss one, and don't expect to see many of them on network TV: Only the Spinster and either the Goodwood or Lady's Secret are scheduled to be televised by ESPN.

The 20 Grade 1 races are at only three tracks - Belmont, Keeneland, and Oak Tree - but the past performances suggest that there will be no effort to coordinate post times to give them a chance to breathe. On the 10th, when each track has three Grade 1's, it's likely that at least six of them will be run in the same narrow late-afternoon window. Nor are there any plans to link the races with multi-track bets of any kind.

It's unreasonable to think that anyone but the most devoted handicappers can keep track of all 20 of these Grade 1's, not to mention the 17 other graded stakes on those five days or the passel of major European races those weekends that will yield Cup starters. A Breeders' Cup that has grown to 14 divisions, with several key preps for each of those races, is an overwhelming proposition for anyone but racing wonks.

Still, there has to be a better way to organize, schedule, and promote this final round of major races.

One might be to give each of the three tracks a day to itself to run a mini-Cup day - individual cards of the eight Grade 1's at Belmont, the seven at Oak Tree, and the five at Keeneland that are instead jumbled together over two weekends. At least that would prevent post-time conflicts and give fans a more manageable assignment than handicapping three daunting cards a day those two weekends.

A better approach might be to schedule the races so that each major division had its major races run in a 30- or 60-minute window that would lend itself to a lively, three-track television package. You could focus on the 2-year-olds in one time slot and run the Breeders' Futurity, Champagne, and Norfolk in succession, giving fans a look at the top juveniles in all three regions and giving them an all-Grade 1 2-year-old pick three. You could do the same with the Alcibiades, Frizette, and Oak Leaf for 2-year-old fillies; the Beldame, Lady's Secret, and Spinster for older females; the Goodwood and Gold Cup for Classic contenders.

You wouldn't want to do this for all 14 divisions, but two divisions on each of three weekend days, maybe two Saturdays and a Sunday, could work. This would require a focus on perhaps six of the Breeders' Cup races, which is probably a good idea in any case. Six of the original seven Cup races are the obvious candidates: 2-year-olds (Juvenile), 2-year-old fillies (Juvenile Fillies), sprinters (Sprint), grass horses (Turf), and of course the Distaff (Ladies' Classic) and Classic.

Those six divisions account for 15 of the 20 Grade 1 races over the next two weekends, but instead of being presented and promoted as six discrete packages of semifinals, they will be run as part of a confusing, overlapping, and underexposed glut of individual and often competing events.

No one ever sat down and designed an optimal schedule of fall racing in the Breeders' Cup era, but the one that has evolved on its own - historic Grade 1 events at three outstanding venues that lead to one final showdown - could be a pretty good one with just a little packaging and planning.