09/25/2002 12:00AM

BC Classic tilts to 3-year-olds


PHILADELPHIA - The Classic Division of the most recent World Thoroughbred Rankings say a lot about the toughness of the 3-year-olds that ran in the major races this spring. Came Home, Medaglia d'Oro, and War Emblem are tied for the top spot with Britain's Nayef. Repent and Harlan's Holiday rank right behind the top four.

Many of the best older horses are history (where have you gone Street Cry?), need to be supplemented to the Breeders' Cup (Lido Palace), or simply do not appear to be in top form (Milwaukee Brew, Macho Uno, Sakhee).

Assuming trainer Aidan O'Brien doesn't start turf star Rock of Gibraltar in the Classic (and who wants to go against O'Brien after the effort of Giant's Causeway in 2000?), you have to think one of the American 3-year-olds is going to win the big one.

Proud Truth (1985), Sunday Silence (1989), Unbridled (1990), A.P. Indy (1992), Concern (1994), Cat Thief (1999), and Tiznow (2000) all won the Classic as 3-year-olds. Going into the race, only Sunday Silence, Unbridled, and A.P. Indy were as accomplished as this year's top 3-year-olds.

Medaglia d'Oro and Came Home have similar styles to Sunday Silence without, of course, having won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, as Sunday Silence did. Repent reminds me of Proud Truth and Concern. He is going to be dangerous, especially if War Emblem runs in the Classic and scares everybody enough to ensure a fast pace.

War Emblem, as he has been all year, is the X factor. Will the riders on Medaglia D'Oro and Came Home be so concerned that they go too fast too soon? Or will they be lulled to sleep by the Pacific Classic outcome, and leave War Emblem alone on the lead, hoping for something that has yet to happen - the Derby and Preakness winner losing when he gets a clear lead.

Judging by his comeback win in the Pennsylvania Derby, Harlan's Holiday will run about the way he ran in the Derby and Preakness. This colt is consistent but simply not fast enough to beat the best of the 3-year-olds. His Pennsylvania Derby time (1:51.10 for the 1 1/8 miles) was the slowest in the 24-year history of the race. His Beyer Speed Figure was only 96.

As the horses hit the wire in the Derby, the Churchill Downs press box was like a morgue. Hardly anybody envisioned the way the race would be run or the result. It was, many figured, a fluke. More than that, many figured these must be some truly bad horses strung out behind War Emblem.

Clearly, it was no fluke. And there were some serious horses in the Derby.

Early May to late October is forever in the life of the modern Thoroughbred. In the life of the 3-year-old, the nearly six months can seem like six years, such is the fragility of the 3-year-olds who prepare for the Derby and then compete in one or more of the Triple Crown races.

Came Home left the Triple Crown scene after the Derby. He returned and hasn't lost since. Harlan's Holiday was out after the Derby and Preakness. Repent never made it to the 3-year-old classics because of an injury. Only Medaglia d'Oro and War Emblem made it through all three 3-year-old classics and are still running.

Picking the winner of the BC Classic is never easy. But finding the group from which the winner will come does not seem very hard at the moment. Maybe the Breeders' Cup should have another of its neat proposition bets next year. Take all the 3-year-olds against all the older horses in the Classic. This year, I would take the 3-year-olds and be very confident.