09/04/2003 11:00PM

Event that's as odd as it is old

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DEL MAR, Calif. - For starters, one thing should be kept absolutely clear. The match race was invented by horse owners willing to subject their animals to an otherwise unnatural competitive experience in order to satisfy their own starving self esteem.

But that's nitpicking.

Match races found their place in history when British racing was a hodgepodge of country meets, gypsy trainers, and landed gentry who turned to horses when they got tired of blowing pheasants out of the sky. If the Duke of Northcumberlandshire couldn't box, couldn't dance, and had given up on his backward, inbred sons, he always had his beloved horses to carry the family name.

"My horse can beat your horse" became the cry, which is to say, "I'm a better man than you, and my horse will prove it."

For the most part, early American racing was no different. They were, after all, colonial English. But as revolution brewed, circa 1774, emotions spilled onto the racecourse. In "The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America," author William H.P. Robertson recounts a match race that captured the public's fancy with its clash of political sentiments, pitting the American horse True Briton against the recently imported Old England. The terms were four-mile heats, best of three, for a purse of 100 English pounds.

"True Briton finished so far ahead of Old England in the first heat that the latter was pronounced 'distanced,' " Robertson wrote, "and there was no necessity for further heats."

Later on, match racing in America boiled down to North-South beefs, sort of a starter kit for the Civil War. The greatest of these was one of the first, in 1823, when American Eclipse of New York lost the opening four-mile heat to the Virginia-owned Henry. Flayed and bleeding from the lash of his jockey's whip, American Eclipse went on to win the second and third heats, much to the delight of the hometown thousands who had crowded the Union Course on Long Island.

One hundred years later, nationalism mixed again with horse racing in a match between Kentucky Derby winner Zev and the Epsom Derby winner, Papyrus. Zev broke out in hives two weeks before the first race and Papyrus complained of a sore ankle. Still, they both showed up at Belmont Park on the appointed day, on a muddy, slippery track, for a total purse of $100,000. Zev won by five.

Racing has evolved. International and regional matches have been replaced by odd cominglings. Human sprinters and cyclists have been pitted against four-legged punching bags. Quarter Horses have been matched against their long-winded Thoroughbred cousins. Then, at some strange point in the road, it became a cool idea among promoters to match jockeys, as if a man or a woman could ride faster than a horse was prepared to run.

Sunday at Del Mar, the "Battle of the Sexes" will match Pat Valenzuela, leading rider at the meet, against Julie Krone, who is number two in the standings. Apparently, it is better to promote a cynical antagonism between men and women rather than an old-fashioned focus on No. 1 vs. No. 2. But then, "The Man Show" would not be interested in the results. Welcome to the 21st century, where cultural retro reigns.

In fact, Del Mar fans have been watching these two riders go at each other all meeting long. The match race does nothing more than package the obvious - that Valenzuela and Krone have found themselves on the right horse at the right time more often than the rest of their equally hard-working colleagues in the Del Mar room. Through the racing of Thursday, the 38th day of the 43-day meet, Valenzuela and Krone have finished one-two no less than 12 times, and you can guess the tally. It's 6-6.

Krone's match race experience includes an exhibition against Bill Shoemaker at Canterbury Downs, during the summer of 1988. Shoe was on the last legs of his career, about to make a farewell tour of the nation's tracks, while Krone was in transition from winning titles in New Jersey to taking on New York.

"She was in front all the way, and she took it pretty serious," Shoe recalled Thursday afternoon from his home near Santa Anita. "When I came to her in the stretch she went to bumping me and pushing me out. I should have claimed foul on her, but I didn't. I guess it wouldn't have looked very good."

The artistic success of Sunday's match will hinge not on the relative abilities of Valenzuela and Krone, but on the speed of their unsuspecting mounts, Chester's Choice and Woke Up Dreamin. Shoemaker knows how sour a match race can turn if the horses are not on a level field, no matter who is at the controls. In August of 1955 at Washington Park, with the whole racing world watching, Shoe and Swaps were thoroughly stuffed by Eddie Arcaro and Nashua. The reason became apparent after the fact. Although Swaps had the natural speed a rider needs to take the initiative in a two-horse race, that day he was ailing from a bad foot. Shoemaker never saw the front.

"Just tell Julie to put her horse on the lead," Shoe said. "If she does the same thing to Pat that she did to me, she'll be fine."