05/26/2005 11:00PM

Frankel's delivery just a little off


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - In his ongoing crusade to reduce the presence of handicaps among Grade 1 races, Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel is withholding the star mare Megahertz from the Grade 1 Gamely Handicap at Hollywood Park on Monday.

Frankel's philosophy is simple, delivered with a no-nonsense approach straight out of the John Bolton diplomatic playbook: "You don't come out of Grade 2 races beating garbage and pick weight up," Frankel said, referring to the victory of Megahertz in the Santa Barbara Handicap on April 17. "I don't think it's fair. That's why I think Grade 1 races should be equal weights."

Frankel has about as much of a chance to effect changes in the graded race system as the brusque Bolton does in "reforming" the United Nations, supposedly his mandate if he ever gets the job as U.S. ambassador. If anything, the trend is going the other way, evidenced by the return of the Hollywood Gold Cup this summer to handicap status.

The Graded Race Committee - working for the Kentucky-based Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association - already has attempted to legislate Grade 1 morality by requiring super test post-race screenings and setting a $200,000 purse minimum for Grade 1 events. If the next step is taken, and handicaps are banned from Grade 1 consideration, look for a wholesale revolt from the host tracks of such championship-level races as the Santa Anita Handicap, the Apple Blossom Handicap, the Stephen Foster Handicap, the Carter Handicap, the Donn Handicap, and the John C. Mabee Handicap.

It is a crying shame if a mere 16 ounces has deprived Hollywood Park's customers from a Megahertz sighting. By her absence, track management inherits a larger field and a theoretically more bettable and therefore more profitable race. But Megahertz would have made Memorial Day memorable, and horses like her put fans in the stands.

As for Frankel's rhetoric of relegating the defeated horses in the Santa Barbara to the garbage heap, it must be pointed out that Bobby quickly backed away from his harsh words, while sticking to his philosophical guns.

"I made a mistake in saying the other horses were garbage," Frankel said Friday from New York, where he is preparing to run reigning Horse of the Year Ghostzapper in Monday's Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap. "But they weren't a very good bunch that she beat, and I didn't think she should have picked up weight."

Megahertz is a bona fide crowd-pleaser. Next to Giacomo, she is probably the best known Thoroughbred training in California right now. The little chestnut can boast a nationwide simulcast audience, in addition to a loyal following that stands and cheers whenever she returns from another of her bang-zoom stretch runs. Even Frankel, the big lug, admits to choking up whenever he watches her in action.

"I know I probably sound like a crybaby, but carrying 124 pounds for her is one-sixth of her body weight," Frankel said.

Still, the mares that Megahertz has been beating the last three years are hardly the Washington Generals, and the Santa Barbara survivors were far from flotsam. Ask the Moon, now retired, was a Group 1 winner in France. Hoh Buzzard, also retired, had solid Grade 2 credentials. Nadeszhda, the Nashwan mare beaten three-quarters of a length by Megahertz, should be favored in the Gamely.

Then there was the 2004 California-bred horse of the year, Moscow Burning, who finished on nearly even terms at level weights with Megahertz when they both faced males in the Hollywood Turf Cup last December. It would have been reasonable to expect Moscow Burning to come back in the Gamely. Instead, according to trainer Jim Cassidy, she is getting time off to mend a fractured vertebra near the base of her spine, which went undiagnosed until her subpar Santa Barbara effort.

Sporting his trademark Yankees ballcap and matching New York attitude, Cassidy rose to the defense of his mare, politely pointing out that Moscow Burning somehow managed to defeat Megahertz on soft ground in the 2004 Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Lone Star.

"I don't know why Bobby's got to say crap like that," Cassidy said, warming to the task. "I guess he's just afraid that one pound's gonna get him beat. And if he gets beat by garbage, what does that make him?"

Okay, boys, neutral corners. Frankel said he was sorry, and he meant it. And Moscow Burning has nothing to prove. California's filly and mare turf division traditionally offers the toughest, deepest, and most consistent competition on the circuit. From the Santa Ana and Santa Barbara in the winter to the reinvigorated Matriarch in the fall, the major events unfurl in a sensible progression over courses that are usually firm and dry. It takes a good horse to win any of them, whether designated Grade 1, Grade 2, or Grade USDA prime by some convoluted computer ratings system back in the bluegrass.

Besides, describing a field of noble Thoroughbreds as "garbage" hardly rises to the Jeff Mullins-according-to-the-L.A.-Times level of calling horseplayers "idiots." For one thing, horses have a better sense of humor. And much thicker hides.