03/18/2005 1:00AM

Champion deserves his due


NEW YORK - The 1990 racing season is remembered most for the Easy Goer-Sunday Silence rivalry that failed to bloom at 4, the Bayakoa-Go for Wand Breeders' Cup Distaff, and perhaps for Unbridled's victories in the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic. Its Horse of the Year has remained largely forgotten, at least until news arrived this week that Criminal Type had died in Japan on March 9 at the age of 20, just weeks before he was scheduled to be pensioned and returned to this country.

Easy Goer, Sunday Silence, Bayakoa, and Go for Wand were all enshrined in racing's Hall of Fame in their first two years of eligibility, and Unbridled may well get in sooner or later. The horse who beat all of them in the polls that year has yet to come close.

Criminal Type, one of Calumet Farm's last good homebreds, was an Alydar colt who began his career in France under Patrick Biancone, winning just 1 of 5 starts at 2. Sent to D. Wayne Lukas in the spring of 1989, he showed little in three allowance starts, but then went to the shelf for six months and returned a new horse in the fall, running through his conditions.

He began his championship season winning three straight at Santa Anita, including Grade 2 victories in the San Pasqual and San Antonio, then stepped up and twice finished second to Ruhlmann, getting weight and looking second best each time. At that point, with Ruhlmann looking like the better horse and Easy Goer and Sunday Silence nearing their season debuts, Criminal Type looked like a very useful handicap horse with absolutely no shot at being a divisional champion, much less a Horse of the Year. A bad fourth in the Oaklawn Handicap on April 14 only sharpened that images.

But then began a run of giant-slaying that would lead to a title. On May 12 in the Pimlico Special, Criminal Type avenged his two defeats to Ruhlmann, beating him by a neck. Sixteen days later in the Metropolitan Mile, he outlasted two champions, holding off Housebuster by a neck as Easy Goer ran third. Then a month later he gamely outfinished Sunday Silence by a head to win the Hollywood Gold Cup.

All three performances were admirably gritty efforts, though there were extenuating circumstances. Criminal Type got four pounds from Ruhlmann in the Special, seven from Easy Goer in the Met, and five from Sunday Silence in the Gold Cup. It also was now clear that Easy Goer and Sunday Silence weren't entirely what they had been a year earlier when they electrified the racing world. A scheduled showdown between them at Arlington Park dissipated, the Gold Cup was Sunday Silence's last race, and Easy Goer made his last start two weeks later.

Criminal Type made two more starts, romping against nobody in the Whitney and then fading to sixth in the Woodward, his final career appearance. He was retired before a wild Breeders' Cup Classic, which drew 16 entries in the absence of Easy Goer, Sunday Silence, Criminal Type, and Ruhlmann. Unbridled ran down longshots Ibn Bey and Thirty Six Red to complete the same Derby-Classic double Sunday Silence had a year earlier, but losses in the Preakness, Belmont, Secretariat, and Super Derby had left him with a spotty 4-for-11 record. Criminal Type, 7 for 11 with victories over Easy Goer, Housebuster, Ruhlmann, and Sunday Silence, seemed the marginally better choice.

In the breeding shed, it all went the other way. Unbridled has sired winners of the Derby (Grindstone), Preakness (Red Bullet), and Belmont (Empire Maker), while Criminal Type was packed off to Japan in 1993, where he was miles behind Sunday Silence as a sire. Last year, Michael Blowen, who operates the Old Friends equine retirement facility at Hurstland Farm in Midway, Ky., arranged for Criminal Type to be sent to Hurstland after the current breeding season. Criminal Type would have joined a band of retirees including his old rival Ruhlmann and the 1988 grass champion, Sunshine Forever.

"We get involved with these great champions during their later years and death is often peering over the withers," Blowen wrote in an e-mail to Old Friends supporters Wednesday after he was informed that Criminal Type could not be saved. "We will install a memorial for him at Hurstland. He was, after all, already donated to us.

"We should re-double our efforts to have Criminal Type take his deserving place in the Racing Hall of Fame at Saratoga Springs," Blowen added. "He certainly deserves it. None of this lightens the bone-chilling sadness of the moment. Every morning, as I walk past Estrapade's grave, I'm reminded that all of our cherished retirees will end up with her. It makes me want to work harder to make sure that we can give a better retirement to all retirees."