06/30/2005 11:00PM

A throwback race worth keeping

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It would be a stretch to call the American Oaks an institution. Three years of history is barely a decent news cycle. But of all the racing innovations that have been floated over the past few decades, the Oaks stands out as truly deserving institutional status.

For starters, the Oaks is among only a handful of North American races that attempt to cultivate an international profile, following in the traditions established by the Washington, D.C. International and perpetuated by such events as the Oak Tree Invitational, the Yellow Ribbon, and the Arlington Million.

Sadly, the Breeders' Cup essentially killed the D.C. International and seriously crippled races such as the Yellow Ribbon and Oak Tree Invitational in California and the Rothmans International at Woodbine. Even Belmont's Turf Classic, now named in honor of Joe Hirsch, has trouble luring the same depth of participation it enjoyed before the Breeders' Cup Turf came along to fundamentally shift the autumn landscape.

And that is too bad, because international competition on American soil is good for the racing soul. It gives horsemen from Europe, South America, and the far reaches of the Pacific Rim a chance to sample U.S. racing first hand. In turn, the American scene is invigorated by exposure to the game invaders - the whirring efficiency of a Ballydoyle crew, the worldly experience of a Clive Brittain team, or the doting media that accompanies every Japanese star.

Beyond its international appeal, the American Oaks also provides the U.S. breeding business with a badly needed justification to produce at least a few horses in each crop cycle geared toward old-fashioned stamina. Funny, isn't it, how money can make a difference? With the Oaks purse of $750,000 representing America's biggest pot for 3-year-old fillies, 1 1/4 miles doesn't seem nearly quite as daunting.

The dumbing down of the breed has been aided and abetted by racing programs caving to the idea that Thoroughbreds no longer run as far as they used to. The Breeders' Cup was among the most guilty when the Distaff was sliced from 10 to nine furlongs in 1988. Santa Anita surrendered by knocking an eighth of a mile off the 1 1/4-mile Strub Stakes. Don't laugh, but the Jockey Club Gold Cup used to be two miles. Even Hollywood Park, enlightened enough to create the American Oaks, compromised its own Hollywood Oaks by reducing it to a measly 1 1/16 miles four years ago, in hopes of drawing better fields. It didn't work.

Taking its cue from such international hosts as the Japan Racing Association, the Hong Kong Jockey Club, and the Maktoum family of Dubai, Hollywood Park management continues to prime the pump for the American Oaks, subsidizing international transport and picking up accommodations for the invading teams.

This year's Oaks delivers an attractive mix of foreign fillies. Silk and Scarlet tried Divine Proportions twice in France and lived to tell the tale. Sweet Firebird is untested at this level, but she can drop the name of her dam, Fire the Groom, who was a very good American turf mare. Silver Cup has done little wrong in Italy - ditto Cesario in Japan - while Luas Line and Hallowed Dream both came within a length of winning European classics.

Cesario's participation makes the American Oaks important enough to air on a Japanese network, live at 7:30 a.m. Monday, Tokyo time. By contrast, there will be no national American telecast of the American Oaks, other than the obligatory coverage by the betting channel TVG, which is picked up locally on FoxSportsWest for a segment that will include the Oaks running.

This should come as no surprise, since racing on commercial television has become a tangled web of intrigue and mixed blessings. According to a Hollywood spokesman, there might have been an opportunity to air the Oaks on ESPN if management had been willing to present the race early on the Sunday program. Obviously, this would ruin the dramatic arc of the day for both the participants and the ontrack customers. It would also force Hollywood to exclude the highly bettable Oaks from the pick six package of races at the end of the card. Whichever reason carried more weight, the result was the same. A large tree will fall in a relatively quiet forest, and only the local inhabitants will notice.

In the end, it is not television exposure that will ensure the survival of the American Oaks. Nor will it be the continued willingness of management to subsidize a classy, significant racing event. The American Oaks at Hollywood Park will continue only if Hollywood Park stays in business as a racetrack.

Based upon the intentions of its parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., Hollywood is up for sale and its future is fraught with uncertainty. In terms of cold dollars, the property is ripe for development in a dozen different ways, although horse racing would not appear to be among the most profitable.

"I know everybody is jumping to conclusions," said Rick Baedeker, Hollywood Park president, referring to sale speculation. "But as a matter of fact, we could be having this conversation about the American Oaks 10 years from now. That would obviously be my hope and desire.

"In the meantime, we're just going to focus on this weekend, and making the fourth American Oaks as good as the first three. We'll worry about the day after Sunday when it comes."