10/05/2005 11:00PM

Ancient Title one of the true greats


ARCADIA, Calif. - There will be a lot of moaning and groaning about the quality of the field going forth in Saturday's running of the six-furlong Ancient Title Stakes, especially from those who take the graded race system seriously, all of them shuddering at the prospect of a Grade 1 California sprint without the presence of such proven performers as Pico Central, Greg's Gold, Woke Up Dreamin, and Unfurl the Flag.

As the last West Coast proving ground for the Breeders' Cup Sprint, the 2005 version of the Ancient Title does come up a little light, with an upwardly mobile Bilo and a rehabilitated Captain Squire leading the way. But guess what? You could assemble a dream field from such past Ancient Title winners as Kona Gold, Cardmania, Groovy, Elmhurst, and Swept Overboard, and they still wouldn't be able to hold a candle to the horse for whom the race is named.

Do not mistake such praise as an attack of middle-aged reminiscence, viewed through the same taste-numbing haze that renders James Dean a great actor or the Dave Clark Five a great band. By all standards of measurement - speed, endurance, versatility, and durability - Ancient Title was the real deal.

Compared to the modern racehorse, he looms as some sort of prehistoric beast. Here was a Thoroughbred who made his first start in June 1972 and his final start in August 1978. He raced 57 times, won 24, and hit the board in another 20, while displaying a versatility that would have impressed the most diehard Dr. Fager fan.

His best win at the Ancient Title distance came in the Palos Verdes Handicap on opening day of Santa Anita's 1974-75 season. At the other end of the spectrum, there was the Oak Tree Invitational of 1977, which Ancient Title lost by a neck at the end of 1 1/2 miles on the grass. The two horses ahead of him that day were Crystal Water and Vigors.

In between, Ancient Title won the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Strub Stakes at 1 1/4 miles, the Whitney and the San Antonio at 1 1/8 miles, the San Pasqual and two Californians at 1 1/16 miles, and every seven-furlong race in which he ever ran: the Sunny Slope, Cal Breeders, San Vicente, Inglewood, Malibu, Los Angeles, and San Carlos.

Thank goodness for the 1975 running of the Whitney, though, or else Ancient Title would have been relegated to the same regional dustbin that keeps a horse like Swoon's Son, a Midwestern star, from proper appreciation. Keith Stucki, the man who trained Ancient Title, recalls the Saratoga race as one of Ancient Title's finest hours.

"He had just won the Hollywood Gold Cup, but everybody thought he was overmatched going back there," Stucki said.

He was probably listening to all the wrong people, like the racing press and Eastern horsemen, whose idea of a Cal-bred was shaped by speed horses stopping at the top of the stretch at Churchill Downs. To their credit, Saratoga's horseplayers cut through the smoke and made Ancient Title 7-2 in the betting. With Sandy Hawley aboard, he led from start to finish, beating the Allen Jerkens runner Group Plan by a neck, while carrying 13 pounds more than the runner-up, 128-115.

"When horse and rider returned to the unsaddling area," wrote Joe Hirsch in the American Racing Manual, "there was a generous round of applause from the New Yorkers, who knew they had seen a runner."

Stucki makes no apologies for Ancient Title's subsequent third-place finishes in the Governor Handicap and Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park, both won by 3-year-old champ Wajima. "He ran his races," Stucki said. "I just don't think Belmont was his kind of track."

Still, by the time he returned to California, Ancient Title could boast 1-1 split decisions with two other East Coast monsters, Forego and Foolish Pleasure.

Ancient Title was an eye-popping individual of above-average size and girth, bearing a rich brown coat with white leg trim and a handsome star that tapered into a perfectly symmetrical blaze. On special days, Ancient Title's groom would adorn him with royal purple pompoms woven into both mane and tail.

"He was a really well-balanced horse," Stucki said. "When he was four or five, I remember a group coming out here from the university in Ft. Collins, Colorado, to take his measurements. They said he was almost a perfectly proportioned racehorse."

Stucki, now 86, was a jockey at Santa Anita when the track opened in 1934. He retired from training not too long after Ancient Title ended his career and has spent the last 20 years traveling, enjoying his family, and keeping in touch with friends in the racing world. Stucki was invited to present the trophy on Saturday to the winner of the Ancient Title, but health concerns will keep him at home, enjoying the tribute on TV.

"I've still got pictures of him all around the house, and a few of his trophies, too, including the silver tray from the Whitney," Stucki said. "As far as I'm concerned, he was one of the best horses of all time, and there's maybe only two or three I could say for sure that were better than him."