11/03/2004 12:00AM

Battle of Beyer and Nielsen


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Now that the nuisance of Nov. 2 is history, it's time to get on with the real campaigning.

"Ghostzapper" lawn signs are starting to crop up all across America, daring neighbors to disagree. "I'm a Smarty" bumper-stickers are riding the backroads and highways. There is passion in the land.

John Servis, of course, is pulling hard for Smarty Jones. His platform can be found elsewhere on this page. To his credit, Servis does not hype his candidate by denigrating his opponent. There are no accusations of cowardice, drug use, or of actually having been bred in France. A class act to the end, Servis is no fun at all.

Bobby Frankel, on the other hand, would love a good brawl. As far as Frankel is concerned, the presence of Smarty Jones in the Breeders' Cup Classic - even at his Preakness best - would not have fazed Ghostzapper at all.

"It's simple," Frankel said in the wake of Ghostzapper's Classic. "I don't think there's any doubt that he's the best horse in the country by far, and they should give Horse of the Year to the best horse."

Oh, sweet innocence . . . that life could be so clean and clear. No doubt, the Tiznow people were saying the same thing when their hero won an unprecedented second straight Breeders' Cup Classic in 2001, in addition to the Santa Anita Handicap. Horse of the Year went, instead, to the dominant 3-year-old Point Given.

In 1979, when Affirmed was 4 and Spectacular Bid was 3, Horse of the Year voters at least had access to the hard evidence of their epic race in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, when the older colt beat the younger colt at a conclusive 1 1/2 miles.

That was small consolation, however, to the backers of Seattle Slew from the 1978 season, when their horse won both debates against Affirmed in handy fashion. When the votes were counted (and, hopefully, recounted), Affirmed's Triple Crown trumped anything Seattle Slew could do.

If there is a parallel to the 2004 dilemma facing Horse of the Year voters, the clock must be turned back to 1953. That year, American racing fans were burdened with an embarrassment of riches. When they were not being entertained by the exploits of the 3-year-old Native Dancer, they could indulge themselves in the perfect game tossed by 4-year-old Tom Fool.

By the end of the season, Native Dancer was 9 for 10, while Tom Fool went one better. Among Tom Fool's 10 wins without defeat were the Metropolitan, Brooklyn, Suburban, Carter, Whitney, and Pimlico Special. He won handicaps carrying 136, 135, and 130 pounds twice, set or equaled two track records, and rendered his last four starts no-betting exhibitions.

Unfortunately, the two never crossed paths. Native Dancer stuck with his kind, beating up on 3-year-olds from April to August, while winning the Preakness, the Belmont, and the Travers, in addition to the Wood, the Withers, and the Dwyer in New York, along with the American Derby and Arlington Classic in Chicago. Native Dancer's only loss came in an eventful Kentucky Derby in which - according to a Churchill Downs bigwig quoted by historian William Robertson - jockey Eric Guerin "took that colt everywhere on the track except the ladies room."

In those days, benefit of the doubt was usually given to the superior, weight-carrying older horse. So it was Tom Fool over Native Dancer for Horse of the Year, and no surprise, as Joe Estes reported in "American Race Horses, 1953":

"Never before, in the many years since the handicap became the principal test of excellence in American horses, had any runner so thoroughly dominated the older division," Estes wrote of Tom Fool.

Estes warned, however, that the general public would not understand. In his review of Native Dancer's season - which was highlighted by nationwide telecasts of the colt's most important races - Estes observed that most experts thought Tom Fool would have taken his younger foe under any circumstances. However:

"For the goggle-eyes American public, Native Dancer was Horse No. 1," Estes conceded. "Thus, from the point of view of the sport itself, Native Dancer became Public Relations Director No. 1."

Sound familiar? For all the brilliance of his record, Smarty Jones is more often than not extolled as "the horse who did the most for racing," through the countless hours of televised Triple Crown exposure, magazine covers, and Internet buzz. In this day and age, such elements translate into pure gold. Media magic beats merit every time.

Because of this, Ghostzapper's backers had better brace for the worst. Frankel can cite sheets and numbers until he's blue in the face, pounding hard at the unassailable facts on the ground to make Ghostzapper's case. But, like it or not, he is up against a kind of faith-based handicapping, practiced by a strain of evangelical racing writers, editors, and officials who are seduced by the horses who win loudest, not fastest.

In the end, numbers will tell the tale. Many Eclipse Award voters will be swayed by Ghostzapper's 4-for-4 record and his Beyer Speed Figures of 128 in the Iselin and 124 in the Classic. But there also will be a hardcore group of true believers who will kneel before the most significant digits attached to Smarty Jones - his Belmont Stakes Nielsen rating of 13.4 and his 27 audience share - and vote accordingly.