10/03/2003 12:00AM

Ancient Title's range had no limit

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The big sprint race on Sunday at Santa Anita Park is named in honor of a horse who was beaten a neck going a mile and one-half on the grass.

Come again?

The Ancient Title Handicap at six furlongs provides a final proving ground for West Coast runners with designs on the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Sometimes the parlay pays off. Kona Gold, Elmhurst and Cardmania used wins in the Ancient Title to rev up for success in the Breeders' Cup.

None of them, however, were particularly versatile animals. Sprinting was their game, and they did it well. Running six furlongs, and then another six furlongs without stopping would have confused them terribly.

Ancient Title had no such qualms. He was a equal opportunity racehorse, winning major stakes events at six, seven, eight, 8 1/2, nine, and 10 furlongs during seven seasons of competition. That 12-furlong turf race took place at Santa Anita, in the 1977 Oak Tree Invitational, when Ancient Title carried level weights against such proven distance stars as Crystal Water, Vigors, and Double Discount. After leading through a mile in 1:36 and change, Ancient Title was still there at the end, a neck back of victorious Crystal Water and a nose behind Vigors.

Ancient Title not only ran like a champ. He looked the part, too. He was tall and robust, with two white stockings behind and an unforgettable blaze of near-perfect symmetry, wide between his eyes and tapering down between his nostrils.

Darrel McHargue, who rode him in the Oak Tree Invitational, once noted that Ancient Title defied his status as a gelding.

"Most geldings have that kind of stringy appearance," said McHargue, now a steward in northern California. "They don't have near the muscle development that Ancient Title had. He was really a good-looking horse."

Ancient Title belongs in the Hall of Fame. Of that there is little doubt, and hopefully he will get another chance next year. An encouraging precedent was set in 2003 with the induction of Precisionist, who had a similar range of ability. Like Precisionist, Ancient Title traveled East from California to show his wares, winning the Whitney Handicap by a neck while carrying 13 pounds more than the runner-up, Group Plan.

About the only thing Ancient Title did not do was win a championship.

California sprinters were rarely honored in the 1970's, leaving a horse like Ancient Title to slip quietly between the cracks. And there was no Breeders' Cup available to attract everyone's attention. All he did was win 20 stakes.

A magnificent seven of those 20 came in races at seven furlongs. He never lost at the distance. At age 2 he won the Sunny Slope and the California Breeders Champion Stakes at Santa Anita. At 3 Ancient Title defeated Linda's Chief by a neck in the San Vicente at Santa Anita and Groshawk by a neck in the Inglewood at Hollywood Park.

Ancient Title commenced his 4-year-old season winning the seven-furlong Malibu, now deemed a Grade 1 event, then took the Los Angeles Handicap at the distance across town at Hollywood. His last seven-furlong hurrah took place in his first race at age 5, when he won the San Carlos Handicap under 128 pounds. After that Ancient Title made 31 more starts and sprinted just once, winning a six-furlong race at Del Mar in 1:08.20, at the age of 8.

Ancient Title reached the end of the line during the summer of 1978 when a bowed tendon stopped him cold. It was hard to see him go. After all, Ancient Title had been a leading player in nearly every major California event since the fall of 1972. But his owner, Ethel Kirkland, and trainer Keith Stucki knew it was time to say goodbye. Ancient Title retired with earnings of more than $1.2 million, topping the list of horses bred in California.

At the time, Wally Dollase was busy managing his Rio Vista Farm near the central California town of Atascadero. This was before he started training horses like Windsharp, Jewel's Princess, Deputy Commander, and Ten Most Wanted, winner of this year's Travers and Super Derby. Dollase had been a true-blue Ancient Title fan from afar.

"How could you not love that horse?" Dollase recalled this week. "I had a few retired geldings on my farm at the time, so I called Mrs. Kirkland and offered to give him a home."

Ancient Title was restless and high-strung when he arrived, prompting Dollase to find him some company. A hunter-jumper owned by a student going to nearby Cal Poly San Luis Obispo did the trick, and Ancient Title settled down. Unfortunately, when the student graduated and moved her horse, Ancient Title reacted badly to the sudden departure. He began eating the dirt beneath his grass paddock - a common nervous behavior - and ended up with sand colic.

"We couldn't save him," Dollase said. "His intestines were too far gone. That was a very sad day. But just to have him there for those five years was a treat. And I'll tell you, I learned a great deal about conformation just watching Ancient Title, because that's the way you want a Thoroughbred to look."