07/21/2002 11:00PM

Worth repeating: Oaks is too long


NEW YORK - What would be your reaction if the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes was downgraded to Grade 2 from Grade 1?

Outrage would probably be the consensus response, because the Preakness and Belmont are two of only four races in North America that are considered classic events.

Don't worry. The Preakness and the Belmont don't figure to be downgraded anytime soon. But, if the North American Graded Stakes Committee is really doing its job, it's going to have to think long and hard about whether America's only classic race for fillies, the Coaching Club American Oaks, shouldn't be downgraded.

For the second year in a row, and for the third time in the last four years, last Saturday's CCA Oaks attracted a field that simply did not befit a Grade 1 race.

The seven fillies who contested this 86th edition of the CCA Oaks combined for just one previous graded stakes victory, and that came in a weak Grade 2. The field had just two previous stakes victories of any sort. Three members of this "Grade 1" field were eligible for a nonwinners-of-three-other-than allowance condition, while the other four were eligible for easier allowance conditions. That can be overlooked when inexperienced 2-year-olds go for Grade 1 glory in the fall, but not when you're talking about 3-year-olds in late July.

What did it say about this field when Jilbab, who was beaten more than 17 lengths without an excuse in her only previous stakes attempt, overcame a severe stumble at the start to win? What does it say when the filly who finished second, Tarnished Lady, was beaten 15 1/2 lengths without an excuse in her only previous start on dirt against winners? It says the CCA Oaks is a race in trouble.

I've written about this before, but it merits repeating: If the New York Racing Association wants to restore the CCA Oaks to a race with true meaning and preserve the race's Grade 1 ranking, it must shorten the race from 1 1/2 miles to 1 1/4 miles.

As it stands now, no trainer with a top 3-year-old filly wants any part of the CCA Oaks's 1 1/2 miles. Do you have designs on the Alabama at Saratoga four weeks later? Are you entertaining thoughts about a divisional championship? Then, why in the world would you risk frying your filly at 1 1/2 miles? Especially since only one of the four champion 3-year-old fillies since 1998, the year the CCA Oaks was returned to 1 1/2 miles, even ran in the CCA Oaks.

The CCA Oaks is supposed to be the third leg in NYRA's Triple Crown for fillies, a series that is becoming more loosely connected with each passing year. In 1998, Jersey Girl sent a message that should not have been ignored when, after she won the first two legs of this series - the Acorn Mile and the nine-furlong Mother Goose - she didn't even run in the newly extended Oaks. She turned her back on the opportunity to become only the ninth filly to sweep the series because, like almost every top-quality filly in today's game, Jersey Girl was simply not equipped to go 1 1/2 miles.

Look at what happened this year. You won the Acorn, but she didn't even want the 1 1/8 miles of the Mother Goose, let alone the Oaks distance. She is waiting instead for Saturday's seven-furlong Test at Saratoga. Nonsuch Bay won a depleted Mother Goose, but she was a no- show Saturday, waiting instead for races at more moderate distances.

The Acorn, Mother Goose, and CCA Oaks are supposed to be a series, but you can't tell that by the way the races are structured. The distance progression of one mile, to 1 1/8 miles, to 1 1/2 miles doesn't make sense. A progression of one mile, to 1 1/8 miles, to 1 1/4 miles in the CCA Oaks would be far more logical. And the CCA Oaks at 1 1/4 miles would be a far more serviceable prep for the Alabama, which is also run at 1 1/4 miles.

I can hear the purists screaming now. They will speak of tradition and lament the passing of real distance racing in this country. But a new wave of long distance racing is not going to be built on the back of the CCA Oaks. There has been no drive in that direction since this race was extended in 1998, and now more than ever the CCA Oaks sticks out like a sore thumb. None of the fillies who compete in this race will ever again have to negotiate 1 1/2 miles, unless they move to turf. And if they do move to turf, that in itself would suggest a lack of future accomplishment on dirt, which is not what you would want for horses coming out of a classic.

As for tradition, the CCA Oaks actually is a race accustomed to distance changes. It has been run at distances less than 1 1/2 miles more than twice as often as it has been run at 1 1/2 miles, and it was run at 1 1/4 miles 20 times.

I don't want to see the CCA Oaks downgraded, and I don't want to see this race broken beyond repair. So, NYRA, let's fix it. Let's shorten it to 1 1/4 miles, and watch how quickly it regains its luster as a true classic.