08/29/2002 11:00PM

Great horses race - not rest


NEW YORK - When Saratoga closes for the year Monday, everyone who followed the meeting will have plenty of candidates for most memorable racing moment. The photo-finishes in the Diana and Test opening weekend. Left Bank's Whitney. Medaglia d'Oro's Travers. Whatever race on which you made your biggest score or took your toughest beat.

The performances that could have the most lasting effect on the game, however, were those by Farda Amiga and Repent. Farda Amiga's Alabama victory and the Repent's strong second in the Travers turned conventional handicapping and training wisdom upside down, and already may be influencing the way top horses are campaigned in this country.

American 3-year-olds are rarely asked to win classic races at 10 furlongs off long layoffs, but Farda Amiga did it and Repent came awfully close. In the 1 1/4-mile Alabama Aug. 17, Farda Amiga was making her first start since winning the Kentucky Oaks May 3, 15 weeks earlier. Over a tiring, drying-out track, she rallied from last and got up in the final yards to nail Allamerican Bertie. It may not have been the greatest collection of 3-year-old fillies ever assembled, but among the others in her wake were the winners of the Acorn, Mother Goose, and CCA Oaks. Either way, she won her division's most important race of the summer off a 106-day layoff.

A week later in the Travers, Repent almost topped that. Making his first start in 20 weeks, Repent came charging from off the pace and took aim at Medaglia d'Oro, missing by just half a length in his first start in 140 days. It was not a tremendously strong field, but the winner is a legitimately good colt and it was 7 1/2 lengths back to the third-place finisher, Nothing Flat.

Time gets a little hazy in the summer, so it may be helpful to think of these time frames in terms of the spring. Can you imagine a 3-year-old winning or running a strong second the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby off a 140-day layoff? That would mean he would be making his first start since mid-December.

Paulo Lobo and Ken McPeek deserve tons of credit for having their charges ready for such big efforts off training alone, and they're sticking with what worked. Lobo says Farda Amiga will make her next start, in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, off a 70-day layoff, while McPeek had enterained the thought of going to the Classic with Repent off a 63-day gap. Will others follow suit? Bobby Frankel is thinking about doing the same with Medaglia d'Oro, and Bob Baffert has announced War Emblem will go to the Classic without a race since the Pacific Classic 62 days earlier.

European horses are campaigned this way all the time, but with rare exceptions these maneuvers are fairly uncharted ground in American racing for both horsemen and horseplayers. Does it only work with really good horses? Can it be done early in a horse's 3-year-old campaign or only later on? The sheikhs of Dubai have been trying to win a Kentucky Derby this way with dreadful results, but may now be encouraged to continue their stubbornness.

The method has a clear downside if it leads to abbreviated campaigns for the best and most popular horses. The European model of whisking horses off to stud after a half-dozen starts because they supposedly have nothing left to prove is detrimental to the game.

Eclipse Award voters may face new choices about rewarding well-spaced victories as opposed to more traditional campaigns that hit all the highlights on the calendar. Let's say, for argument's sake, that Repent wins the Breeders' Cup Classic and War Emblem and Came Home are off the board. Do you make a champion of a horse whose only other victories are the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby, or reward the Derby, Preakness, and Haskell winner who danced every dance but didn't win after July?

Great horses should have full campaigns. That's why my vote would go to War Emblem and why I want the next Triple Crown winner to be a juvenile champion who is as dominant at 3 as he was at 2. That's asking a lot but that's what Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed did, and they were the only Triple Crown winners in the last 54 years.