12/01/2005 12:00AM

Give Saint Liam his due


NEW YORK - Afleet Alex's retirement Thursday is a severe disappointment for racing, even more so than those of some other top 3-year-olds in recent years.

While it may be fun to speculate what one-dimensional horses like War Emblem and Smarty Jones, who commanded the spotlight for a few weeks around Triple Crown time, might have gone on to accomplish, Afleet Alex had both more behind him and in front of him than most. He was outstanding at both 2 and 3 and had already shown the versatility and endurance that made him look like a cinch to become a truly superior older horse.

The one thing his retirement should have no bearing on are his prospects for being named the Horse of the Year for 2005. Whether or not he was going to race next year, and as excellent and likeable a racehorse as he was, he does not deserve that honor, and it will be a travesty if Saint Liam is denied the title.

When Saint Liam won the Breeders' Cup Classic, winning his fourth Grade 1 fixture of the year in a classic Horse of the Year campaign, it seemed that the issue was settled, but two online polls have shown the race as a virtual dead heat. Perhaps this is misleading. A year ago, some polls and pundits predicted a squeaker between Ghostzapper and Smarty Jones, and Ghostzapper properly won with nearly 65 percent of the votes.

This year's choice is even more clear-cut, because although Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex had virtually identical achievements, both winning the Arkansas Derby and two-thirds of the Triple Crown, Saint Liam's 2005 was a little bit more accomplished than Ghost-zapper's 2004. Both of them won the Woodward and the Classic, but whereas those were Ghostzapper's only two Grade 1's, Saint Liam had two others, the Donn and the Foster, and made a total of six Grade 1 starts as opposed to Ghostzapper's two. Afleet Alex, like Smarty Jones, did not race after the second Saturday in June and never faced older horses.

There appear to be two reasons why what should be nearly unanimous decisions both times are instead in dispute. The first is the general media's overemphasis on the Triple Crown races and the exclusion of any appreciation of older and better horses. Nowhere was this better reflected than in NBC's Breeders' Cup coverage, which began with Bob Costas bemoaning the absence of Giacomo, as if this was either newsworthy or had diminished the event.

Saint Liam faces another hurdle because of his trainer, Rick Dutrow, who served a 60-day suspension this year for past medication violations. That ruling had nothing to do with Saint Liam, and neither perpetual scrutiny nor New York's strict new testing and detention program has found anything amiss with Dutrow's ongoing success. To deny Saint Liam a title on the basis of largely unfounded suspicions about his trainer is completely unfair to Dutrow and his horse.

Saint Liam was not flashy or explosive, but he did about everything a handicap horse can be asked to do these days while accomplishing more than many recent Horse of the Year prospects. He ran six times from coast to coast, all in Grade 1 races, all major events where his participation was announced weeks in advance and anyone was welcome to try dethroning him.

This argument is coming from someone who has been an Afleet Alex fan since his Sanford 16 months ago. The colt was an admirable throwback to the days when top 2-year-olds held and improved their form at 3, and his dramatic Preakness victory will be a highlight clip for years to come. It also seems that his handlers, whose commendable efforts on behalf of pediatric cancer research gave a feel-good sheen to the colt's successes, genuinely wanted to race him at 4. His moderate pedigree has made him a tough sell as a stallion prospect, and there is no sense that his retirement was a quick and craven dash for syndication dollars. You don't put a horse back in training and then retire him in December if your plan all along was to take the money and run.

There was a lot to like about Afleet Alex and a lot to regret in his departure, but neither of those things make him the Horse of the Year for 2005. That honor was thoroughly earned by Saint Liam, who attempted more and accomplished more where it matters - on the racetrack.