11/01/2002 12:00AM

BC Classic made case for the in-form horse


PHOENIX - Wild Again, Proud Truth, Skywalker, Black Tie Affair, Concern, Arcangues, Alphabet Soup, Awesome Again, Tiznow (twice), and now Volponi. That makes more than half of the Breeders' Cup Classics won by the fit, sharp horse.

We spend too much time worrying about class and about targeting the race. Truth is, the race comes up at a certain date and trainers, much as they want to, can't really control a horse's form cycle. As Bob Baffert said about War Emblem, "He's gone sour on me." It doesn't matter how well they work; if they're not peaking, they're in trouble, especially at this level where there's no margin for error.

There are some years when the superstar can overcome - Ferdinand, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, A.P. Indy, and Cigar. But even when Cigar lost at Woodbine to Alphabet Soup, he had already shown signs of decline. The

3-year-olds in this Classic were nice horses, but none of them were monsters.

Azeri rates top prize

Can you imagine what the Distaff would have looked like if Mike Smith had cut Azeri loose? Watch the race. Smith only let her run about three furlongs, from the half-mile pole to the eighth pole. She broke like a dart and her natural gallop put her on the lead. Smith didn't gun her. That was just Azeri being Azeri. Then she delivered the fatal blow and he wrapped up on her.

And I don't really know what the fuss is all about for Horse of the Year. To me, it's the horse that accomplishes the most. If it were the best horse on its best day you would almost always side with an older male. But in Azeri we're talking about a horse at least as dominant as Lady's Secret. She had just one misstep, and that was avenged in the Distaff. Azeri is a worthy name to add to the Horse of the Year honor roll.

Thinking twice about Derby

As good as Vindication looked, I still don't want to hand him the Derby just yet. It has got nothing to do with his talent; it has to do with the style we have seen win the Derby. Brilliance rarely wins the Derby, though obviously we have seen it on occasion, and Vindication has a strong, steady gallop, much in the mold of Seattle Slew and Spend a Buck. For the most part it's the grinder who gets there, the Thunder Gulches, the Strike the Golds. Kafwain, Baffert's other 2-year-old, is starting to take on the look of that kind of animal.

Speaking of 2-year-olds, Storm Flag Flying couldn't have been more impressive, and the fact it took such a huge effort for her to win also bodes well for the future of Composure, who did everything right but just couldn't withstand Storm Flag Flying's final surge. But one thing bothers me - why is everyone so hot and bothered for a filly to take on the boys? She was barely unsaddled and they were asking trainer Shug McGaughey about tackling the boys in the Derby. Please. We go through this every year. She's a filly. Let her grow up and be a big filly. Let her accomplish everything there is for her, then let's worry about the boys. Shug was right to roll his eyes when the subject came up.

Why the take-back with Xtra Heat? Why in the biggest race of her life do you experiment, as trainer John Salzman said he did? If Thunderello can almost hold off Orientate after flying early, couldn't Xtra Heat possibly have done so too?

With Anticipation has champion's resume

With Anticipation's performance in the Turf was a fantastic way to cap the year. I know High Chaparral is the better animal, but come time to vote for turf champion, I'm going for With Anticipation. I think it should count for something that he had at least the semblance of an American campaign. Three Grade 1 wins and a second in the BC Turf sounds like a champ to me.

Funny, it took a defeat for us to see what the fuss was all about. Rock of Gibraltar had a brutal trip in the Mile, yet still nearly snatched victory out of the jaws of an impossible situation. His breathtaking stretch run left us all knowing full well the best horse did not win. No disrespect to Domedriver, obviously a very nice horse, but if those two were to meet again you know where your money would be.

And finally, the 3-year-olds - what happened? Did War Emblem go sour on Baffert? Is Medaglia d'Oro able to obliterate lesser but not able to get over the hump at this level? Came Home had the most legitimate excuse - he got hurt.

War Emblem in the end will be probably be regarded as a lucky Derby and Preakness winner, a horse who had everything go his way and took advantage. I disagree with that assessment, but it's hard to argue. In his Preakness win I saw a horse at the peak of his powers. Too bad we saw it only once more, in the Haskell, with three other disappointing runs to end his career. To me he's still the 3-year-old champ. His Derby-Preakness-Haskell carries much more weight than Medaglia d'Oro's Jim Dandy-Travers-BC Classic second or Came Home's Santa Anita Derby-Swaps-Pacific Classic.