08/16/2001 12:00AM

Everything but the Big Horse

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DEL MAR, Calif. - For those who require horse racing to be conducted at the highest levels, this weekend should satisfy their deepest psychological needs.

From Del Mar to Arlington to Saratoga, there are two races worth a million dollars, a couple more at $750,000, and another $700,000 just laying out there on the grass in stakes for 3-year-old colts and 3-year-old fillies.

Want big names? You've got Aptitude and Astra, Flute and Futural, Captain Steve and The Seven Seas. Skimming is always worth the price of admission.

Flashy Hap never lets you down. And Bienamado may be the best of them all, but he'll have to prove it in Chicago.

Yes, the weekend has everything. Everything but Tiznow.

That great gaping hole in the 2001 season has been caused by the chronic absence of the 2000 Horse of the Year. Point Given has tried hard to fill the void, but there is only so much a 3-year-old can do to steal the show, shy of winning the Triple Crown. Until he steps out of his division, Point Given remains in Tiznow's shadow.

This weekend would have been complete had Tiznow been ready to meet Skimming, Futural, and Captain Steve in the Pacific Classic. But he wasn't, according to trainer Jay Robbins, who had to settle for playing in the Pacific Classic golf tournament instead.

Forgive Robbins, though, if his mind wasn't exactly on his game. Tiznow has been a round-the-clock project since last winter, when his catalog of nagging problems began to surface. First it was his feet, and then it was his back, so sore it was feared that he may have reached the end of the line.

If Tiznow had been retired, the news would have been greeted with a shrug and a sigh. Racing fans have grown accustomed to their best horse of one year disappearing the next. Since the early 1980's, when John Henry wove together five successful seasons, there has been only one Horse of the Year able to sustain such quality through another full calendar. That horse was Cigar.

But Tiznow was not retired. Far from it. His feet have healed. His back is fine. And he has been working lately at Del Mar as if he intends to defend his title.

His seven-furlong move last Tuesday morning signaled another step in the right direction. Chris McCarron kept the big colt on a steady pace from pole to pole, never really asking for much. Tiznow responded with a clocking of 1:24 and change, and was finally pulled to a stop on the far turn by his gray pony.

"I think he might be wearing out the pony," said a grinning Michael Cooper, who owns Tiznow in partnership with the sons and daughters of the late Cecelia Straub Rubens.

Cooper watched Tiznow's work from the Del Mar finish line, while Robbins clocked the colt from his usual spot along the backstretch. It would be a mistake, however, to interpret this as symbolic of their recent discussions regarding the setting for Tiznow's return. They are not as far apart as it might seem.

Robbins, conservative as ever, would prefer to lead Tiznow over just a few hundred yards from his Del Mar barn to the Del Mar saddling paddock for the $250,000 Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap on Sept. 2 at one mile. It's the safe play, especially since Tiznow's most recent race was six months ago.

Cooper countered with the idea of running in the $500,000 Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park on Sept. 8 at 1 1/8 miles. This is hardly an outrageous alternative. Belmont is the site of the Breeders' Cup Classic. The Woodward is a one-turn race run at level weights. And Robbins would get an immediate gauge on where Tiznow stands in relation to the two best older horses in the East, Lido Palace and Albert the Great.

"Anything can happen in a handicap, and you know he'll be giving away a lot of weight in the Del Mar race," Cooper pointed out.

Robbins concedes that a two-turn mile under handicap conditions is not the ideal comeback spot for Tiznow, even if the handicapping is being done by his younger brother, Tom Robbins, the racing secretary at Del Mar. In fact, brother Tom has a history of being tough on brother Jay when it comes to handicaps, just to avoid any perception of favoritism. They deal with it later at family gatherings.

Jay Robbins is rightfully concerned, however, about flying his champion nearly 3,000 miles for a comeback. Even though he is perfect on the road, Tiznow has a history of being a problem shipper.

Robbins has no right, however, to think twice about running in New York. With only a handful of tries, the trainer has an enviable Belmont record. In 1987, he finished second to Java Gold in the Marlboro Cup with Nostalgia's Star, defeating Polish Navy and Gulch in the process. In 1990, Robbins won the Jockey Club Gold Cup with Flying Continental.

Tiznow has never been confused with Flying Continental or Nostalgia's Star. As he proved in the Santa Anita Handicap, the Super Derby and the 2000 Breeders' Cup Classic, he is a passionately competitive 10-furlong specialist with a high cruising speed and deep reserves. No matter where he returns, he deserves to be the center of attention.

It is reasonable to argue that if Tiznow can be ready for eight furlongs on Sept. 2 at Del Mar, he can be ready for nine furlongs six days later in New York. But since Tiznow isn't talking, it should be up to Robbins to make the final call. He hasn't failed the horse yet.