07/26/2006 11:00PM

Del Mar, Spa on their merits


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - As a New York-bred spending his 28th straight summer here in the Adirondacks, I suppose I am supposed to take the local side in the Del Mar-Saratoga debate everyone seems intent on having every summer. Having been lucky enough in the past week to spend both opening Saturday at Del Mar and opening day at Saratoga 96 hours later, I have recent, firsthand evidence to support the following courageous position: They're both pretty swell.

Del Mar gets the edge on climate, comfort, and serenity. When there are 20,000 or so people on hand, lines are short, aisles are clear, and a gentle hum surrounds the place, not loud enough to drown out the soothing sounds of fountains or Spanish guitarists. A similar turnout at Saratoga is more like an August afternoon on a crowded New York City subway.

People at Del Mar were actually complaining when the temperatures grazed 80 degrees last weekend. "I'm melting!" shrieked a woman in a swimsuit, perhaps referring to her implants. As we say in New York, melt this. A typical day at Saratoga is a sauna compared with the relatively alpine climes of old Del Mar.

Which town and restaurants you prefer is entirely a matter of personal taste, but Del Mar gets a little extra credit for staving off more of the national-brand corporate sameness that has crept into the main drag here. A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable that old Broadway here would look like those in another 100 towns, with a Gap and Banana Republic butting up against a Borders and a Starbucks. Saratoga's side streets still have their eccentric charm, but overall Del Mar has remained more authentic.

Del Mar also gets points for offering dime superfectas, which the New York Racing Association somewhat bizarrely refuses to entertain because of vague concerns about novices tying up betting lines. It doesn't seem to be a problem at Del Mar, Keeneland, Arlington, or anywhere else, and NYRA is simply punishing its customers and subjecting them to higher taxes by spurning the popular new bets.

When it comes to the racing, though, it's not even a contest, not that it's really a fair fight. Debating whether New York or California racing is generally better is not the point. Del Mar is far more Hollywood Park South than Saratoga is Belmont Park North. For the most part, the horses you see in Inglewood in June and July are the same ones you see at Del Mar.

Saratoga racing, however, has an entirely added dimension, because it's not only the best of Belmont but also the cream of Kentucky, the Mid-Atlantic, and ambitious local stars from half a dozen other venues. Del Mar does about as good a job as anyone could with the California horse population, changing up race conditions and attracting the best of most divisions with a solid stakes program, but it simply can't lure horses from all over the East and Midwest the way Saratoga does.

Derby winners could settle argument

A better debate than Del Mar vs. Saratoga might be our slightly tarnished Derby winner vs. yours, aka Funny Cide vs. Giacomo. Giacomo's supposedly triumphal moment last Saturday, taking the length of the stretch to wear down the mighty Preachinatthebar in a San Diego Handicap that earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 100, moved my admirably loyal left-coast colleague on this page to declare that Giacomo is now "the only Derby winner still trying to be a real racehorse."

Try this. Funny Cide was better in every single leg of the 2003 Triple Crown than Giacomo was two years later and has accomplished far more since. He has at least half a dozen races that are by open lengths faster than Giacomo's best, not to mention a Preakness and a Jockey Club Gold Cup to go along with his roses. It's nice that Giacomo's still running at 4 and nicer still that he has now won a stakes race besides the Derby. But even today, with Funny Cide having lost a step or two at 6, if you put him the two of them in a match race at any distance from six to 12 furlongs, Funny Cide would be 2-5 to lead from start to finish, and I'd consider the New York-bred an overlay at that price.

A match race doesn't have to be an entirely theoretical proposition. At this point, neither one of them is exactly a prime contender for the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5, but a showdown over the Derby track and distance would be a pretty stirring way to start the card. Granted, it probably won't happen. Instead, especially in a year where the reigning Derby winner is still fighting for his life, perhaps we could just be glad that both Funny Cide and Giacomo are still running and winning at all.