03/03/2003 1:00AM

Good seats still available

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Frank Stronach shielded his eyes as he stood on a platform near the winner's circle, midway through last Saturday's program, and gazed up into the clubhouse mezzanine seats.

They were nearly full, which was no surprise, since the mezz is peopled by the true believers - owners and trainers, their friends and families, visiting dignitaries and serious gamblers - and this was Santa Anita Handicap day.

It was the supporting players who were in short supply, as if central casting got the date wrong on the movie shoot. The grandstand areas were no more crowded than on the typical Sunshine Millions day. The audience around the walking ring was barely two or three deep. Only a corner of the infield teemed with humanity, but they were there for a rock concert and a beer festival. Mmmm, beer festival.

"Were you at Santa Anita today?" wondered KROQ disc jockey Kat Corbett to a caller that evening. "Did Ralph throw up on you, too?"

Rock and roll can do that.

Clearly, the stomachs of Santa Anita management are made of stronger stuff. How else can they choke down the naked reality of the lowest Santa Anita Handicap attendance in the history of the race? The announced crowd of 25,160 ranks at the bottom of the 66 times that the race has been run, beginning in 1935. At the end of the day, the head of the company that owns the track was asked to assess the numbers.

"It's nice any time you get 25,000 people," replied Frank Stronach, whose Magna Entertainment owns Santa Anita. "I've always said it before - nowadays people have got such a great choice of entertainment, we have to rethink the racing. You mean, with a population base like we have here, we should have a crowd of 50,000?"

Who knows? Perhaps a crowd of 50,000 in Los Angeles is unrealistic in these strange times, short of a Rose Bowl or a Springsteen concert.

Certainly, it makes no sense to compare the totals of today with 1940, when more than 68,000 watched Seabiscuit win, or with 1946, when 83,768 celebrated the first postwar Handicap.

But have we come so far from 1988, when Alysheba and Ferdinand put on a grand show for 70,432? Or from 1990, when Ruhlmann and Gary Stevens led Criminal Type on a merry chase before 50,023? Should opening day at Del Mar on a Wednesday in July be more attractive than the presentation of California's most famous horse race? Guess so.

In all fairness, it should be pointed out that Santa Anita drew more live fans than any Los Angeles area sports venue last Saturday. The Kings got 18,118 at Staples Center during a matinee, and then, after the ice was covered, the Clippers pulled in 17,471 for their evening game against the San Antonio Spurs.

Other competition for the Santa Anita Handicap included state university hoops at Pepperdine (attendance 1,367) and Fullerton (attendance 1,249). Golf nuts gathered at La Costa, 100 miles south of the track, to watch Tiger Woods in the semifinals of the Accenture Match Play. Fans of the Long Beach Icedogs minor league hockey traveled to San Diego for an away game. And on television there was Roy Jones fighting in Las Vegas and those amazing Swiss yachtsmen taking the America's Cup in New Zealand.

"Years ago, people didn't have all the great entertainment they have now," Stronach said. "So we have to be innovative and get that entertainment dollar back. We have to jazz it up."

As the operator of the racetrack, Stronach has his work cut out to revive the popular appeal of the Santa Anita Handicap. On the other hand, Stronach the horse owner has the big race wired.

In defeating Congaree by a head at the end of a fast mile and a quarter, Milwaukee Brew was even more impressive for Stronach and Bobby Frankel in 2003 than he was in 2002, when he romped by four over Western Pride.

"I liked this one much better," said Edgar Prado. He would, though, since Kent Desormeaux rode Milwaukee Brew last year.

"Congaree ran a great race," Frankel said. "They came home very fast - 24 and change - which is a very good race. Our horse is obviously a little bit better going a mile and a quarter."

But only a little bit, and maybe not at all, considering that Congaree carried five pounds more than Milwaukee Brew in the Handicap. There is no way to know if the weight made the difference until the two horses run against each other at level weights, which will hopefully come in a race like the Hollywood Gold Cup in July.

Neither does anyone seem to know what Stronach means when he says he wants to "jazz up" horse racing. The only way the Santa Anita Handicap could have been a better horse race would have been through the participation of Medaglia d'Oro, the rising star of the game, who was kept in the barn because Frankel did not like the weights. There can be little doubt that the absence of another marquee horse cost Santa Anita both customers and handle.

"Maybe it's my fault, for scratching Medaglia d'Oro," Frankel said with a shrug.

If only it was that simple.