08/21/2005 11:00PM

Borrego's win proves nothing

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NEW YORK - It is hard to recall a season similar to this one, with major horses dropping like flies in so many divisions that you wake up the next morning wondering who the next prominent horse will be to go to the sidelines for an extended period of time, or be outright retired.

In many respects, Sunday's Pacific Classic at Del Mar was a microcosm of this unsettling year. Despite the fast pace he was involved in, Hollywood Gold Cup and Californian Stakes winner Lava Man turned for home in the Pacific Classic as if he were going to easily make this event his third straight stakes victory. But then, contrary to the horse he had recently become, Lava Man suddenly came up empty in the final sixteenth.

He was pulled up abruptly galloping out on the clubhouse turn, and then, for whatever reason, was vanned off the track. Lava Man's

performance threw this Pacific Classic entirely up for grabs - much like the Breeders' Cup Classic division, in a wider view. When that happens, you often get an outcome that is implausible.

That is not meant as a knock on Borrego, who was the one to capitalize on the circumstances, and who outfinished not only Lava Man but also Perfect Drift and Choctaw Nation to win the Pacific Classic. But even though Borrego had previously finished second in six stakes races, and third in two others, he was also 0 for 13 in stakes starts in his career. Maybe Borrego suddenly found the winning knack overnight. It is more likely, however, that until he proves otherwise, his upset of the Pacific Classic was primarily a function of the weakness of the competition.

Along the same lines, Sweet Symphony did her best in Saturday's Alabama Stakes at Saratoga to make you forget that this crucial race for 3-year-old fillies did not have Splendid Blended, or Sweet Catomine, or Smuggler, or Round Pond, or Summerly, all of whom at one time or another this year could have laid claim to being tops in their division. All of those fillies are either retired, or ill, or injured, meaning this edition of the Alabama was decidedly weaker than usual. In reality, Sweet Symphony's main opposition was Spun Sugar, whose development has proven to be disappointingly stagnant, and Sis City, who has been, and still is, miles removed from her best form.

But even though Sweet Symphony's off-the-pace romp in the Alabama should be viewed in this context, there is reason to be optimistic about this filly, who is now undefeated after four starts. For one, the Beyer folks liked the way she ran in the Alabama, assigning her a figure of 104, although it should be noted that the Alabama was a tricky number to make. The Alabama was run over a harrowed track rated as good, while all the other dirt races Saturday were run over a sealed track termed either sloppy or muddy. More important is what Sweet Symphony's Hall of Fame trainer, Bill Mott, thinks of her. When Mott, who is as given to hyperbole as the Rolling Stones are to chamber music, says "I like this filly a lot," as he did after the Alabama, it would be foolish not to give her every benefit of the doubt.

Get steeplechases off the main card

The future of steeplechase racing at Saratoga was still a hot topic over the weekend thanks to last Wednesday's ugly second race, in which four horses fell going over the last fence and only two of the nine starters finished the race.

The main issue here is whether steeplechase racing should be a part of the betting menu at Saratoga, but the debate can certainly go much deeper. When you put large objects in front of Thoroughbreds racing against each other and force those horses to jump over them, ugly spills will happen with some degree of frequency. That could lead one to ask, Is steeplechase racing really suitable entertainment in the Saratoga venue?

Thank goodness, everyone walked away from Wednesday's pileup unscathed. But that was this time. No one wants to see an incident where a jump jockey is seriously hurt, or even killed. But the ramifications of an accident like that would reverberate even more at a place like Saratoga, where the crowd consists of a higher-than-usual concentration of new and very occasional racegoers. These are the type of people racetracks have spent a lot of money and effort on in the hopes of developing them into more serious fans. But you cannot achieve that if one facet of the game looks to them like some sort of blood sport. It is entirely fair to wonder how many first-time or very inexperienced racegoers at Saratoga on Wednesday turned around and walked out the door after the second race, upset at what they just saw.

There are ways of addressing this issue without ending the tradition of steeplechase racing at Saratoga. One would be to card steeplechase races as betless exhibitions, with one jump race going off at noon, and another at 12:30, leaving the flat card that begins at 1 p.m. unaffected. That way, the people who really want to see the jump races can come out early and see them, and serious horseplayers won't have to deal with an abbreviated program of flat races, or see pick fours disappear, as was the case with the early pick four last Wednesday. This would put pressure on the racing office to fill a handful of extra flat races during the meet, but the higher betting handle on those replacement flat races would fund the purses for the betless steeplechase events.

The only conceivable opposition to a proposal like this would be from steeplechase "wise guys," who may be inclined to set up a jumper for a score at Saratoga in the biggest parimutuel pools they see all year. Let them cry foul. They don't deserve any sympathy.