11/07/2003 1:00AM

Two-day Cup's time has come


In general, attempts to make racing's biggest events part of multi-day racing "festivals" have just not worked. Pimlico and Belmont have repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to emulate Churchill Downs's success with Kentucky Oaks Day on the afternoon preceding a Triple Crown race. In the mid-1990's, Belmont also tried breaking up its fall Super Saturdays into Pretty Good Saturdays and Sundays, and people still stayed home watching football on Sundays.

Despite those past performances, there may be one event where it might be worth trying again: the Breeders' Cup.

Stretching the Cup over two days has been suggested from time to time in recent years and was most recently proposed anew by Mark Simon in the Thoroughbred Times. The idea of a two-day Cup was considered by John Gaines and the other founders two decades ago and rejected, probably wisely, in order to help establish the idea of a single, spectacular afternoon of racing.

Now that the day has been established as such, it may be time to revisit the idea, if only because it seems one of those rare experiments that has virtually no downside.

In a perfect world, a two-day Cup would be contested on a Saturday and Sunday, but in the real world of network television you can't go up against the National Football League. Still, a two-day festival over a Friday and Saturday could work.

Simon suggests running three of the eight current Cup races on Friday and five on Saturday, with a pick six spanning the two days. That may be too drastic a diminution of the big day, and bettors will not like tying up their money over two days. An allocation of two races Friday, with that number growing if and when other Cup races are added to the lineup, and then six on Saturday, including the Turf and Classic, might be a more prudent start.

What makes it a virtually risk-free experiment is that it seems highly unlikely the Saturday card would suffer any loss of interest and coverage with six Cup races rather than eight. (Until the Filly and Mare Turf was added four years ago, the day did just fine with seven races.) The host track would still run as big a card as always on Saturday with other stakes races taking up the slack.

Any dip in handle would likely be more than offset from the incremental business on a nationally televised Friday card featuring at least two Cup races and enough other stakes to create an attractive national pick four and pick six.

If there's little to lose, what are the advantages?

1. Creating another major day on the annual racing calendar.

2. Enhancing awareness and anticipation of Saturday's main event with an additional day of exposure. Reports of Friday's results and the story lines that might create for Saturday could give the main event a huge boost.

3. Giving the individual events more room to breathe and more attention. The breakneck schedule of eight back-to-back Cup races ensures that two or three will not receive the coverage and celebration they deserve.

4. Allowing the Cup to grow beyond the current slate of eight races. Other divisions deserve a race. A sprint for fillies and a mile race on the dirt are overdue candidates, and perhaps there is room for a 2-year-old grass race or a turf sprint as well. If a decade from now we have 10 to 12 Cup races, wouldn't it be a waste to run them all on one day?

5. Creating new revenue, through an overall handle increase for the two days and from another day of selling premium reserved seats, that could be used to keep Cup purses competitive, or at least current with inflation.

Which races would you move to Friday? There are probably a dozen different ways to go, and perhaps a few different schedules could be tried. Suppose last year the Distaff had been one of the Friday races? Azeri's victory would have received a lot more attention and would have thrown down a gauntlet for Saturday: Could anyone win impressively enough to take the Horse of the Year title away from her?

Putting the two juvenile races on Friday is another possibility, giving a little extra limelight to the future stars of the game, assuming the colts start showing up again. That would have worked nicely this year, with Richard Mandella sweeping the two races and becoming a focal point the next day with Johar and Pleasantly Perfect.

Perhaps it seems meddlesome to tinker at all with an event that works so well, but this seems like an opportunity for a free roll. The only thing growing on Cup Day is total handle - attendance and television ratings are static at best. Giving the customers another day to do what they seem to enjoy most - betting into huge national pools on world-class sport - seems a much bigger gain than whatever would be lost by running "only" six Cup races the next day.