03/04/2002 1:00AM

Big Cap heroes: Frankel, Western Pride

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NEW YORK - It's one thing that trainer Bobby Frankel recorded his first victory in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap last weekend. After all, he does have at his disposal an embarrassment of riches, a point underscored in the race before the Big Cap when Decarchy, one of three Frankel representatives, won the $300,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile.

But for Frankel to win the Big Cap as comfortably as he did with a horse like Milwaukee Brew illustrates how he has the game on its knees. Going into the race, Milwaukee Brew was at most the fifth-best older dirt horse in Frankel's barn, behind Mizzen Mast, Lido Palace, Skimming, and Euchre.

If Milwaukee Brew hadn't been part of an entry with Euchre, he probably would have paid close to $60, instead of $11.40. He had been 0 for 8 since winning the 2000 Ohio Derby, and hadn't run a really strong race since October of that year.

But in just his second start for Frankel, Milwaukee Brew was swept up in the overwhelming momentum of Frankel's 18 Grade 1 wins last year. Milwaukee Brew, benefiting from a wicked early pace, passed as many as 11 horses to score by four lengths.

The story of this Big Cap was pace, and that is why Western Pride covered himself in glory finishing second. There was a lot of other early speed in the Big Cap, but in a daring move, Western Pride struck out to be the speed of the speed. He paid a high price with nearly impossible early fractions for a 1 1/4-mile race of 22.28 seconds, 45.06, and 1:09.55 on a surface that was neither speed favoring nor unusually fast.

Yes, Milwaukee Brew was the only stretch runner to really fire. Still, Western Pride still had the lead at the eighth pole and held on for second, demonstrating he has heart as well as talent. It also proved that his win in the San Fernando in January wasn't a fluke due only to a track kind to speed. He will win other big races, that is if there are any other big races Frankel doesn't already have his name on.

Handicaps have outlived usefulness

The Big Cap also brings to mind a topic that has been debated over the last few years - whether any of our major races should still be run under handicap conditions. Opponents of handicap racing argue that it's crazy for a sport to intentionally weigh down superior performers so that an inferior performer has a better chance of succeeding. Leveling the playing field like this is, after all, the goal of handicap racing. No other sport does this, so why should Thoroughbred racing?

For me, the reason the 1976 Marlboro Cup Handicap was one of the greatest races ever seen was not necessarily because Forego caught Honest Pleasure on the wire at the end of a thrilling stretch run, but because Forego did so under 137 pounds, while conceding 18 pounds to Honest Pleasure, a fellow champion. As one who has a deep respect for the history of this game, I had always thought handicap racing had an important place in the sport. But I've changed my mind.

Handicap racing provided a service back in the days when horses were horses. Back then, the best of them ran 25 times or so a year and faced pretty much the same group of opponents every other week. With full-card simulcasting not even a dream yet, it made sense from a business standpoint to burden a dominant horse with weight just to make the race a better betting event. And if putting the grandstand on the back of dominant horse didn't stop him, all the better. A weight-carrying legend was born. But, those days are gone forever. The most starts any older male champion since 1990 made in a season was 11, and the top older horse of today rarely has common opponents more than three or four times a season.

Also gone forever are the days when meaningful weight assignments are given to top performers in handicap races. Racing secretaries are reluctant to pack on weight, because they know if they do, there will always be another racing secretary at another track who will assign a lesser weight in the hopes of luring the star horse to his handicap race.

Moreover, there is no longer any reason for a trainer to accept a heavy weight assignment for his horse. The trainer can always play one racing secretary against the other to get a lesser weight assignment. If that doesn't work, the trainer can, and often does in today's game, simply wait for the next stakes run under allowance, scale weight, or weight for age conditions, some of which used to be handicaps.

The number of times since Forego that a top older horse carried more than 130 pounds in an important race can be counted on your fingers. As a result, the handicap racing that exists now no longer fits in historical context, which reduces its relevance even more.

So, maybe it's time to end the charade and do away with big-time handicap racing. Of course, that means we'll have to come up with a better nickname for the Big Cap than the Big Allowance Stakes.