06/16/2005 12:00AM

Classic showdown got zapped


NEW YORK - For a brief but giddy spell last weekend, racing fans could salivate over what might happen Oct. 29 at Belmont Park: Ghostzapper, making his final career start in the Breeders' Cup Classic, cruising off the stretch turn with a daylight lead. Afleet Alex, slipping through at the rail and gathering steam for the stretch run. The nation's best older horse in front, the best 3-year-old making a final run at him. A race for the ages.

The smart money might have made Ghostzapper 3-5 in that fantasy Classic, deeming it more of a mismatch than a showdown, but who knows? Afleet Alex, just halfway through his 3-year-old year, still has upside and room to mature and improve. And if Ghostzapper were hounded for the first nine furlongs of the Classic the way he was by Saint Liam in last year's Woodward, is it entirely crazy to think that the fresh and flying youngster just might get up at the wire?

Such tantalizing thoughts had a life of just 42 hours, the interval between Afleet Alex's exhilarating Belmont Stakes triumph Saturday and the announcement Monday that Ghostzapper was being retired due to a hairline sesamoid fracture apparently incurred while winning his season debut in the Met Mile on May 30.

Ghostzapper's retirement was a bitter disappointment, especially coming so quickly after that superb Met performance, which had seemed to certify his brilliance even beyond the dimensions of his Horse of the Year campaign in 2004. Even the stingiest of praisers seemed ready to welcome him into the pantheon of transcendent champions and talk about him in the company of Cigar, the Triple Crown winners of the 1970's, and Dr. Fager without flinching. Now there is debate anew over whether a horse fully belongs in such company after a career that, viewed in the coldest terms, consisted of only 11 starts.

It's a semantic issue, because greatness comes in apple, orange, and various other flavors. Against the clock alone, Ghostzapper was simply a faster horse than Cigar, but racing is more than time trials. Cigar's 16 consecutive victories over three seasons, his durability and his determination to win, count for plenty, too.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to think Ghostzapper was some flash in the pan whisked off to stud for venal reasons. Ghostzapper raced and won in four separate calendar years, and his return to the track as a 5-year-old was a sporting move with nothing but downside financially. The breeding season is over; retiring him now rather than in November does not make anyone a nickel.

The larger issue raised by Ghostzapper's 11-race career is the esoteric one posed by Bobby Frankel, his trainer. Frankel agrees with some students of time that horses today are simply running significantly faster than they were a generation ago and that it is therefore unrealistic to expect them to be as sound and durable as, say, Affirmed (29 career starts) and Spectacular Bid (30 career starts) were.

It is a fascinating and inflammatory hypothesis, and very difficult to prove. Jerry Brown of Thoro-Graph says that his figures support it, while Andrew Beyer has called it "counterintuitive." Changes over the course of so many years in racetrack speed and maintenance, depth of cushion, and alterations in the class structure of racing programs cloud rather than clarify the question. Every figure-maker's moorings tend to drift over a period of decades. You can go back and try to quantify some races in isolation - I firmly believe that Secretariat's Belmont merits the equivalent of a Beyer Speed Figure of over 130 - but it ends up being a relative rather than absolute exercise. Try proving how many home runs Babe Ruth would have hit had he been born 50 years later.

If Brown and Frankel are right that horses today are running too fast to have the lengthy careers they once did, it seems above all else an indictment of the American breeding industry for honing isolated bursts of brilliance at the expense of soundness and durability. Do we want a game in which everyone makes fewer starts and has shorter careers in order to produce the occasional Ghostzapper?

Now that he's gone, and while his recent victims sort themselves out in what's left of the handicap division, Afleet Alex goes to the head of the class and seems all the more appealing. He doesn't run Beyer Speed Figures of 120 or higher, as Ghostzapper did in four of his final five career starts, and it's not certain that his turnkey dominance against a fairly dismal Triple Crown class will continue against stiffer competition. Still, it is difficult to imagine trainer Tim Ritchey ever saying that Afleet Alex runs too fast for his own good or runs his best races with months between them.

The Classic may well still turn out to be a corker without Ghostzapper, but it would have been fascinating to see what would have happened when one strain of very high quality met another.