01/07/2005 12:00AM

Few great horses set records


NEW YORK - On Friday, Gulfstream Park decided to recognize Mr. Light's world record of 1:31.41 for a mile last Monday. Track officials quite properly took this sporting matter quite seriously, remeasuring the new turf course over which it was set and retiming tapes of the race, before certifying the historic clocking.

While the time was open to plenty of suspicion, given that this was only the first mile and second race run over a brand new course, it is neither as outlandish nor as important as the fevered debate surrounding it would suggest. The incident is primarily an excellent reminder of the misleading nature of raw times and track and world records in Thoroughbred racing.

Consider the following roster of horses: General Express, G Malleah, Rich Cream, Elusive Quality, Kostroma, Double Discount, With Approval, and Hawkster. Not one of them was a divisional champion, much less a Hall of Famer. Yet they are the world-record holders at each progressive furlong from five furlongs to a mile and a half.

In fact, of the 38 distances at which world records are recognized, only two of the horses have a passing acquaintance with greatness, and their marks were set at rarely used distances: Roberto's 2:07 for 1 5/16 miles at York in 1972 and Miss Grillo's 2 1/2 miles in 4:14.60 at Pimlico in 1948. Far more frequent are the marks set by forgotten horses in minor events at venues including Agua Caliente, Atlantic City, Ellis, Exhibition Park, Naragansett, Northlands, Remington, Timonium, and Turf Paradise.

It's also worth noting that almost every world record from five furlongs to two miles has been established on the grass, an intrinsically faster surface than the dirt over which the best American horses race. Thus, Double Discount has the world record of 1:57.40 for a mile and a quarter, two-fifths faster than Spectacular Bid's North American dirt mark of 1:57.80 in the 1980 Strub; Toonerville's world record of 1:51.40 for 1 3/16 miles on the Hialeah grass in 1976 is a full second better than the dirt mark of 1:52.40 jointly held by Riva Ridge and Farma Way; and Hawkster's 2:22.80 on the Santa Anita grass in 1989 was six-fifths swifter than Secretariat's 2:24 flat in the 1973 Belmont.

The one-mile mark has an aura of sacredness because of the simplicity of the distance and the reverence in which Dr. Fager's longtime mark is held. His 1:32.20 at Arlington in 1968, accomplished under an impost of 134 pounds, is probably the best-known raw time in the history of the sport along with Secretariat's 2:24. When Najran equaled that mark on May 7, 2003, with a 1:32.24 at Belmont, it did not mean the second coming of Dr. Fager had arrived, only that the opening-day track at Belmont was insanely fast.

These day-to-day - sometimes race-to-race - variations are why speed figures, which modify raw time by factoring in the speed of the racetrack, are a more reliable indicator than time alone. An entirely ordinary horse can win a race in 1:09 the day before a champion wins one in 1:10. It's untidy, but that's racing.

Elusive Quality, who held the mark that Mr. Light has lowered, was not exactly Dr. Fager, but he was a very quick horse when he had things his own way. He set his record winning the Grade 3 Poker on July 4, 1998, romping by six lengths in 1:31.63 around the single turn of Belmont's Widener turf course. He also won the seven-furlong Jaipur in 1:20.99 for seven furlongs and set a Gulfstream dirt mark of 1:20.17 at that distance.

Having seen plenty of Mr. Light while losing money on him several times last year, I can attest that he is no Elusive Quality, but he probably is as good as plenty of other world-record holders who caught spectacularly fast surfaces. He was beaten only four lengths in the Grade 2 Knickerbocker and has always seemed capable of a little more. Last Monday at Gulfstream, he looked good beating stakes-placed Icy Atlantic by 2 3/4 lengths, though only four necks separated the second- through sixth-place finishers. That means that if Mr. Light ran a real 1:31.41 for a real mile, then six horses in that race ran a faster mile than Dr. Fager's and did it around two turns rather than one.

That seems impossible, but so are the notions that Elusive Quality, Double Discount, and Hawkster were faster than Dr. Fager, Spectacular Bid, and Secretariat. Everything else being equal, only great horses would own world records, but everything else is rarely equal when it comes to raw time in racing.