05/02/2008 12:00AM

Defining greatness a tricky thing

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NEW YORK - There was a mild racing upset away from the track last month when it was announced that Manila had finally been elected to the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. While his induction is entirely worthy and overdue, it came at the expense of some more recent runners, reflecting a dilemma that is going to start coming up with increasing frequency and intensity in the next few years.

Are some of today's most prominent champions, with their often brilliant but usually brief careers, going to be considered as Hall-worthy as the more durable and accomplished greats of yesteryear?

Manila absolutely belongs. The 1983 foal, a son of Lyphard and the Le Fabuleux mare Dona Ysidra, won 12 of 18 career starts including nine consecutive graded grass stakes in 1986-87. Perhaps best remembered for beating champions Theatrical, Estrapade, and Dancing Brave in the 1986 Breeders' Cup Turf, he also won two United Nations, Turf Classics at both Belmont and Churchill, and the 1987 Arlington Million.

Yet this was Manila's 16th year of eligibility to the Hall. There were obviously some other contemporary males due to get in ahead of him - as A.P. Indy, Alysheba, Cigar, Easy Goer, Exceller, Riva Ridge, Skip Away, and Sunday Silence did - but this year the ones he kept at the doorstep included two recent Horse of the Year winners, Point Given and Tiznow. The latter, a champion at 3 and 4 and the only two-time winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic, is a safe bet to make it sometime soon, but Point Given - who wasn't even in the top three this year - is more emblematic of the type of tough decision voters face in the years ahead.

Point Given was the champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year in 2001, when he won 6 of 7 starts including five Grade 1's - the Santa Anita Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Haskell, and Travers. Injured that fall, he was retired rather than raced at 4, by choice rather than necessity, and that appears to be why he hasn't garnered more support. He has received fewer votes the last two years than Best Pal, an admirable and popular warrior but a horse who won only 16 of 47 career starts and was only 6 for 23 in Grade 1 races.

At least Point Given raced after the Triple Crown, winning the Haskell and Travers. If he's struggling just to become a Hall of Fame finalist, what does that say about the enshrinement prospects of recent star 3-year-olds who accomplished even less? Smarty Jones and Barbaro are probably the most famous horses of this decade, but neither won a race after May of their 3-year-old campaigns. Afleet Alex didn't race after the Belmont. Street Sense became the first horse to win both the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the Kentucky Derby but was retired - perfectly sound in an entirely economic decision - at the end of his 3-year-old campaign. So was Bernardini.

It's hard to see any of those five ever being voted into the Hall of Fame. Of the 3-year-old titlists of this decade, only Curlin seems a cinch, with Tiznow likely, and both of them raced as 4-year-olds.

There will be controversial choices among the older males as well. Invasor's accomplishments on three continents make him a strong candidate, and while I'll vote for Ghostzapper when he becomes eligible, a lot of voters will probably hold an abbreviated 11-race career against him. Mineshaft won 9 of 11 American starts but raced here for only 10 months.

The fillies get their own category, and there the choices are probably easier. While there's still a backlog of deserving candidates - Inside Information got in this year, but runners-up Open Mind, Silverbulletday, and Sky Beauty all belong - Azeri and Ouija Board should cruise in the moment they're eligible, and Ashado will present a strong case. The trickiest one may be Rags to Riches, who last year became the first filly since 1905 to win the Belmont Stakes. The Derby-winning fillies Genuine Risk and Winning Colors both got into the Hall, but both had much longer and more accomplished careers than Rags to Riches's mere seven starts.

A combination of fragility and a rush to cash in at the breeding shed has made many of the best horses of recent years one-season wonders. If the trend continues, perhaps the definition of greatness will change, too. But for now, with Point Given finishing behind both Manila in his 16th year of eligibility and Best Pal and his 17 Grade 1 defeats, it seems the Hall of Fame voters are not quite ready to embrace such a redefinition.