03/13/2006 1:00AM

Great drama, if not a 'great race'

Healthy Addiction, under Jon Court, was unchallenged up front on a wet, sealed track in the Santa Margarita Invitational at Santa Anita.

NEW YORK - This time of year, Thoroughbred racing's focus is almost entirely on the 3-year-old male division. Despite the enormous importance of the Breeders' Cup, the Kentucky Derby is still the most important race in this country, annually attracting the attention of the mainstream media and general public - two constituencies that might otherwise pay little notice to our game. So it is only natural that during the run-up to the Kentucky Derby, 3-year-old males receive inordinate scrutiny at the expense of other divisions.

But on Saturday, a race took place at Oaklawn Park that should not be overlooked just because it was for an older filly and mare division that is accustomed to operating under the radar at this time of year. The race was the Azeri Breeders' Cup, a stepping-stone to Oaklawn's premier race for fillies and mares, the Apple Blossom Handicap. Round Pond and Happy Ticket put on such a display finishing a close one-two in the Azeri that it was easily the most entertaining stakes race so far this year. Some people are already saying it might even be the greatest race in Oaklawn Park history.

If you missed the Azeri, it is worth making the effort to catch a replay online or at a replay center at your local track. Round Pond and Happy Ticket slugged it out from the initial strides to the finish, and both laid everything they had out on the track. Round Pond held a narrow advantage most of the way, then Happy Ticket poked her head in front turning for home and for maybe a couple of other brief moments through the stretch battle. Finally, Round Pond got her snout in front when it mattered most, at the wire.

The virtual match race between Round Pond and Happy Ticket meant even more because they are genuinely good racehorses. For a brief time last spring, Round Pond might have been the best 3-year-old filly in the nation, and she did beat the eventual divisional champion, Smuggler, in their only meeting when Round Pond won the Grade 1 Acorn. And for a moment last fall, Happy Ticket was as good as any older female in the country. She lost a narrow decision to eventual divisional champion Ashado in the Grade 1 Beldame, and in the judgment of many, she was the better horse that day.

It might be wise, however, to stop short of labeling the battle between Round Pond and Happy Ticket in the Azeri a "great race." I am not a big believer in the importance of weight, not when you're talking about the impact a couple of pounds may have on a 1,200-pound racehorse. But in this particular instance, and under the circumstances particular to the Azeri, the six pounds Happy Ticket gave to Round Pond might have made a difference. The final time of 1:43.93 for the 1 1/16 miles translated to a winning Beyer Speed Figure of only 100, which is by no means exceptional. Also, at the finish, there were only 1 1/4 lengths between Happy Ticket and the unheralded Platinum Ballet. These are not nitpicks. These are important considerations. But they do not diminish the great theater, if not really the great battle, that took place at Oaklawn.

Unfortunately, Saturday's most prestigious race for older females, the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Invitational at Santa Anita won in front-running fashion by Healthy Addiction, wasn't quite as satisfying. Part of the reason might have been a sealed, wet-fast track that some horses may not have handled. And part of that was due to the fact that the pace did not unfold as expected. Specifically, Seafree, who disputed a very fast pace when she won last month's La Canada Stakes, was taken back right out of the gate and settled for third after making a mild bid into the stretch.

This isn't meant to diminish Healthy Addiction's effort, because even though she got loose early, she did so through brisk fractions. Still, it would have been more telling to see what might have happened had Healthy Addiction been lapped on, or even displaced, in the early stages.