04/18/2002 12:00AM

Blink and you missed the good ones


ARCADIA, Calif. - Emptiness characterized the Santa Anita 2001-2002 winter meet, which ends Sunday.

Sure, there were flashes of brilliance. Who can forget Mizzen Mast? Dazzling in the Malibu and Strub, he disappeared from sight. That must have been one nasty quarter crack. Wooden Phone won the San Pasqual, then got hurt. Momentum bled at even-money in the San Fernando, then vanished. Here today, gone tomorrow.

How about Milwaukee Brew? He had only one start, but it was a victory in the Santa Anita Handicap. His win will be enough to make him older horse of the meet.

At least Milwaukee Brew is still in training, which is more than you can say for Siphonic. Winter favorite for the Kentucky Derby, Siphonic is gone. So is Labamta Babe, Siphonic's conqueror in January. The mediocrity of the California 3-year-olds may be a reflection of the entire crop.

The Bobby Frankel Express slowed as the meet wound down, but he left town with a budding 3-year-old superstar. Medaglia d'Oro's brilliant victory in the San Felipe completely overshadowed Came Home's triumph in the Santa Anita Derby.

Came Home will be named 3-year-old of the meet and possibly horse of the meet, despite Beyer Speed Figures that declined with distance and each subsequent race: 109 for the San Vicente at seven furlongs; 106 for the San Rafael at a mile; 96 for the Santa Anita Derby at 1 1/8 miles. Came Home's achievments fall short of brilliance, which is fitting. Few divisions this meet stand up to scrutiny.

Although 3-year-old fillies You and Habibti merit credit for two exciting Grade 1 battles, neither stands much chance in the Kentucky Oaks. You and Habibti are simply not as good as Take Charge Lady or Bella Bellucci. You earned consecutive Beyer Speed Figures of 93 and 99. They pale compared to Bella Bellucci's 103 in the Comely, or Take Charge Lady's 109 in the Ashland.

Speed figures are only one determinant, of course, and comparing numbers from one circuit to another can lead to trouble. However, one colt who did journey cross-country and replicate his feat was Medaglia d'Oro, the most exciting 3-year-old of winter.

Medaglia d'Oro followed his 107 San Felipe Beyer with a 105 in the Wood. His San Felipe figure was earned in a fast-pace race subsequently validated beyond reproach. Medaglia d'Oro ran second next out; San Felipe fourth-place finisher Tracemark won the California Derby; last-place Shah Jehan won a Keeneland allowance. Turns out, the San Felipe was hot, which is one reason why runner-up U S S Tinosa will enter the Kentucky Derby as a dangerous longshot, despite his subpar fifth in the Santa Anita Derby.

California horses are cleaning up everywhere, which makes it seem contradictory to criticize their winter performances at Santa Anita. In the filly-mare division, Santa Margarita winner Azeri shipped to Oaklawn for another Grade 1 score in the Apple Blossom. She's good, and will be named older filly-mare of the meet. However, she has yet to achieve a pace figure in California that comes close to Grade 1 par. Perhaps she is good because the division is so bad. These days, everyone beats Spain.

The temporary heroics of Mizzen Mast (two starts) and Milwaukee Brew (one start) left a void in the handicap division. It is true that the Santa Anita Handicap produced two subsequent stakes winners (third-place Kudos won the Oaklawn Handicap, ninth-place Seinne won the Grade 2 Arcadia Handicap on turf), but the Big Cap looked weak going in, and only Milwaukee Brew produced a legitimate Grade 1 effort. Big Cap sixth-place finisher Cagney will be one of the favorites Sunday in the San Juan Capistrano. If he wins, more will be made of the so-called strength of the Big Cap. Don't believe it. Milwaukee Brew (116 Beyer) and Mizzen Mast (117) were the only stars of the older division.

Likewise, the grass division is one big void. This meet, on grass, they all took turns. Irish Prize won the first two graded stakes, the next four were won by Nazirali, Decarchy, Continental Red, and Seinne. Grass horse of the meet? Take your pick.

Conversely, the filly-mare grass division may be the strongest division in California. Golden Apples will be favored in Saturday's Santa Barbara to affirm her status as division leader, and she will be doing it against a salty bunch that includes Astra, potential star Old Money, and Blue Moon.

An unexpected star emerged among sprinters. Snow Ridge, a three-time stakes winner at the meet, will be named meet's top sprinter, though his achievements remain suspect. Flattered by circumstance (wet track, slow pace) in his last two wins, Snow Ridge shipped to New York and got drilled. It remains unknown whether he can win under less-than-favorable circumstnaces.

Several candidates emerged for claimer of the meet. They include: Bluesthestandard, a three-time winner for $10,000; Fit for a King, three-time winner down the hill; three-time winner Lord Sweeney; and three-time winner Miss Guts.

Bob Baffert will win the trainer race for the sixth straight year, yet it was a relatively quiet winter by Baffert's typically high standards. His 3-year-olds did not pan out, he won just three graded stakes, and 19 of his 43 wins (through Wednesday) were in maiden races.

Alex Solis will be the leading rider; Chris McCarron and Kent Desormeaux were the meet's dominant stakes riders. Elvis Trujillo was the leading apprentice.

The race of the meet depends on criteria. The El Encino duel between Affluent and Royally Chosen may have been the most exciting, but for sheer brilliance, four performances stand out. They were: Medaglia d'Oro in the San Felipe, Milwaukee Brew in the Big Cap, and Mizzen Mast in the Malibu and San Fernando. Frankel trains all three horses.

The Santa Anita racing office will get at least one vote for accomplishment of the meet. For the first half of the season, the overnight racing was terrific. Racing secretary Mike Harlow and assistant racing secretary Rick Hammerle were dealt a strong hand when they opened the meet off a welcome nine-day break in the Southern California racing schedule, and they made the most of it.

Fields were large, handle surged, pick six carryovers were frequent. It slowed as the meet wound down and top stables shipped to the East and Midwest. For the last three weeks, uninteresting two-furlong races for 2-year-olds have been too common.

No end-of-season review is complete without recognizing the worst development. Both the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the California Thoroughbred Trainers Association endorsed increased takeout rates as a means to offset horsemen's insurance costs.

In essence, the TOC and CTT have banded together with a message to bettors: the heck with you.

The betrayal leaves horseplayers feeling empty. This winter at Santa Anita, it was a familiar feeling.