01/13/2005 1:00AM

A struggle to make the Grade


ARCADIA, Calif. - The mean season is normally associated with Florida in summertime, when the hurricanes begin to brew and the barometer reading drops through the floorboards. It is best, if possible, to stay inside, lashed to a mast.

In horse racing, though, the mean season is officially upon us, when the game is played primarily indoors among people who wear suits and nice outfits. The action out on the track is grim, cold, wet, and muddy - hardly a recipe for distraction. Spring will come, eventually. Until then, we must settle for the entertainment value provided by people not normally seen on horseback, or in a stall.

Natural adversaries are fun to watch. There's a reason "Wild Kingdom" was such a hit, beyond the raw, animal magnetism of Marlon Perkins. There's nothing quite like the sight of cheetahs ripping a warm kudu to shreds, or a lioness serenely munching on the haunch of a former zebra.

Recent visceral matchups in racing have included the New York Racing Association vs. the New York State Attorney General, Magna Entertainment vs. the Maryland Racing Commission, and the Jockeys' Guild vs. Just About Everybody.

Then there is the three-cornered smackdown among the Breeders' Cup, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, and the racing secretaries representing tracks that present the game's top events.

In theory, these three groups should be allies. As owners, breeders, and impresarios, the encouragement and presentation of outstanding competition should lie at the heart of their mission statements.

The first blows were struck by TOBA, a self-funded, Kentucky-based group of owners and breeders with national representation and no one telling them what to do. TOBA sponsors the Graded Race System, which has become the basic default program for everything from Eclipse Award voting to Kentucky Derby participation.

(Whether the Graded Race System works, or not, is another subject. Even its supporters tend to fall back on the argument that "it's better than nothing," which is not exactly what you want on a letterhead.)

Last year, TOBA put forth a post-race drug testing protocol - similar to the one used at the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Champion-ships - that would be required for all races deemed Grade 1. No protocol, no Grade 1.

Not long after that, TOBA went proactive once again with the announcement that all races good enough to be granted Grade 1 status must offer a minimum purse of $250,000.

In this week's news, Breeders' Cup officials decreed that the organization would no longer allow money from the Breeders' Cup Stakes Fund to be attached to Grade 1 races that happen to be handicaps, as of July 1. This affects such races as the Triple Bend at Hollywood Park, the Bing Crosby at Del Mar, and the Ancient Title at Oak Tree - all historic races pointing toward the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

For those keeping score, please note that the TOBA-Breeders' Cup moves have put a squeeze on the racing secretaries like nothing since Grant and Sherman surrounded Vicksburg, to wit:

In order to pump up the purse money to $250,000 on the Triple Bend, the Ancient Title, and the Crosby - and thereby retain their Grade 1 ratings - Hollywood Park, Oak Tree, and Del Mar accepted Breeders' Cup money. The contribution was advertised as $50,000 per race.

Now, in order to keep that money attached, the races must change from handicaps to weight-for-age events, or drop their hard-earned Grade 1 ratings.

"We're talking about our options," said Tom Robbins, Del Mar's vice president of racing. "Although no decision has been made, I'm not sure we'd want to change the Crosby from a handicap. Still, keeping it a Grade 1 race would seem worth a lot more than the $50,000."

Pam Blatz-Murff, senior vice president of Breeders' Cup operations, noted that tracks are not being penalized.

"We're trying to show support for our championship races, which are weight-for-age," Blatz-Murff said. "If the track chooses not to run the [Grade 1 handicaps] as weight-for-age, we're not forcing them by taking away their money. We're just asking them to look for another race in their program to use the Breeders' Cup money. But to lose my California Grade 1's from the Breeders' Cup stakes program will be a sad day."

At this point, racetracks can be forgiven if they are reeling from mixed signals. For better or worse, Grade 1 races have become a prize of great value among track managements, even if the goal posts keep moving. Their acquisition is practically announced with a puff of white smoke, followed by the loud pounding of chests.

But as TOBA - and now Breeders' Cup - continue to push for their own vision of a racing universe, racetracks must deal with the question of their own autonomy. When will the price of a Grade 1 rating, or Breeders' Cup money, become too high?

Charles Cella, winner of the Eclipse Award of Merit for 2004, answered that question 15 years ago. As president of Oaklawn Park, he took strong exception to the downgrading of such cherished local events as the Apple Blossom Handicap and Oaklawn Park Handicap. Cella's reaction was to eliminate all reference to his stakes in a "graded" context, and the Oaklawn motto became:

"All our stakes are Grade A."