07/02/2004 12:00AM

Bayamo looks much the best


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Racing fans bang their heads in frustration when young stars are retired at the peak of their fame, or when injury cuts short a career on the rise. Still, despite the chronic turnover, one silver lining remains, a constant upon which horseplayers around the world can rely:

There will always be a Sarafan.

At least, it seems that way. At the age of 7, now in the midst of his sixth campaign, Sarafan began racing way back in the waning months of the last millennium, when life was simpler and the Hall of Fame had yet to summon his trainer, Neil Drysdale, for membership.

As a part of the 1997 foal crop, Sarafan can claim as contemporaries such entertaining animals as Tiznow, Giant's Causeway, Sakhee, and Fusaichi Pegasus, not to mention Sinndar, Red Bullet, Captain Steve, War Chant, and Spain.

Of all those, it is Sarafan who lingers, thanks in large part to a surgical procedure recommended by Drysdale during the summer of 2001. By gelding Sarafan, the trainer was able to rivet his attention on the job he was bred to perform. The results have been gratifying, most notably Sarafan's career earnings of more than $2.4 million in a career of 39 starts.

Number 40 will come on Sunday at Hollywood Park in the American Handicap, the traditional Fourth of July feature at nine furlongs on the grass. Sarafan stands out in terms of accomplishments and company kept, but his presence has never really scared the opposition away, and the record tells us why. His 29 starts in Drysdale's care, dating back to March of 2001, include 15 seconds, thirds, and fourths in addition to his five Drysdale wins.

Sarafan, for all his success, might have been ranked among the all-time international turf racing greats but for the lack of a few feet here and there. His 2002 campaign bears this out.

His victories that year came in the Explosive Bid Handicap at the Fair Grounds and the Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar. He gave too much too soon for an apologetic Eibar Coa in the United Nations and lost to With Anticipation by less than a length. He was blocked and beaten a head by Beat Hollow in the Arlington Million, then stymied in a paceless Clement Hirsch Memorial when second a length to The Tin Man.

After that, Drysdale decided his horse needed a change of hemispheres, but the results were the same. Sarafan lost the 2002 Japan Cup by a lip to the accomplished Falbrav, ridden by Frankie Dettori, in a race that still leaves a bad taste, after which he reproduced another top effort to lose the Hong Kong Cup by just three-quarters of a length.

"He should have won in Japan on a DQ," Drysdale said Friday morning from his Hollywood stable, on a brief jaunt down memory lane. "There was no doubt among the people who watched the race that Dettori should have come down."

Instead of getting mad (okay, maybe a little), Sarafan and Drysdale tried to get even by running in the Japan Cup again last year. Unfortunately, the weather turned harsh and eastern Japan was hit by everything but a tsunami, which turned the usually firm, fair Tokyo course into a slippery hardpan, topped by a layer of shredded, worthless grass. Insulted, Sarafan merely went through the motions and came home in one piece.

The horse forgave his handlers and trained well for his 2003 return to action, which was designed to include the American. Then, to Drysdale's surprise, Sarafan popped a splint, which is kind of like 60-year-old Uncle Sheldon developing acne. His 2004 adventures included losing runs in Dubai and Hong Kong this spring, but now he is back on home ground, where he has turned in a series of seven solid grass works since early May.

Sarafan is well named, by Lear Fan out of the Caro mare Saraa Ree, and beautifully turned out in a blood bay coat with black points. He also tends to wear his personality on his sleeve, which has made him a fairly easy read.

"He had a good 2-year-old season with Sir Mark Prescott in England," Drysdale said. "But he'd run poorly as a 3-year-old. Prescott thought sending him to America would help his attitude, but still he didn't seem to be trying. Gelding him changed his attitude."

As geldings age, they can tend toward track-sour. Even the most dedicated professionals need a break. Drysdale, therefore, has been watchful for any signs that Sarafan has lost his enthusiasm.

"When he's doing well he squeals and bucks, plays around, and does things willingly," Drysdale said. "But if you look at his record, he really hasn't been over-raced. If he's still bucking, squealing, and playing around going to the track, then I'd say he's enjoying it."

Drysdale is plotting a course for Sarafan that could lead again to races like the Arlington Million and the Breeders' Cup Mile. Apparently, this means the game is stuck with the old boy for at least the foreseeable future.

"I certainly hope so," Drysdale said.