06/19/2003 11:00PM

Great race, great name, great horse

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Naming races after horses is tricky business. The most famous race named for a horse is - you guessed it - the Preakness. But how Man o' War's name became attached to a grass race is still anybody's guess, and the Forego at seven furlongs is fine, but only tells part of the tale. Despite the fact that Affirmed won major races at Belmont, Saratoga, Laurel, Santa Anita, Churchill Downs, and Pimlico, there is only one American racetrack that honors the memory of the 1978 Triple Crown winner and two-time Horse of the Year with a major race. That track is Hollywood Park.

In the case of the Affirmed Handicap, which will be run again on Sunday for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles, they got it right. But not until 1993. For its first 14 runnings, the race was called the Silver Screen. Hollywood ... Silver Screen ... get it?

Lately, the Affirmed has been a key indicator for good things to come. Its position in the post-Triple Crown vacuum has provided a place for Kentucky Derby failures to bounce back, or for late bloomers to state their cases. Deputy Commander won the Affirmed and the Travers. General Challenge and Came Home won the Affirmed and the Pacific Classic. Tiznow won the Affirmed and the Breeders' Cup Classic. Twice.

In any event, the Affirmed Handicap belongs entrenched in the Hollywood Park summer schedule because Affirmed picked Hollywood clean. In four starts there over a span of three years, he was perfect, from his romp in a division of the 1977 Hollywood Juvenile Championship to his final appearance out West in the 1979 Hollywood Gold Cup, in which he defeated the stubborn Italian champion Sirlad.

In the spring of 1978, Affirmed used the Hollywood Derby - then 1 1/8 miles on dirt - as his final prep for the Kentucky Derby and subsequent Triple Crown. The result was a two-length victory over a nice colt named Think Snow, who tried so hard to catch Affirmed that he ended up lame and never raced again.

In the spring of 1979, Affirmed returned to Hollywood, fresh from victories in the Strub Stakes and the Santa Anita Handicap across town. Before taking on Sirlad in the Gold Cup, Affirmed dismissed a very good horse named Syncopate in the Californian Stakes, winning by five lengths under 130 pounds without taking a deep breath.

Ron McAnally trained both Think Snow and Syncopate, but there are no hard feelings. At Hollywood, it was simply impossible to beat Affirmed.

After more than 45 years as a trainer - the last 13 of them spent in the Hall of Fame - McAnally retains vivid memories of very special horses. Both Think Snow and Syncopate are in that category, even if they failed to threaten Affirmed. Later, McAnally added his name to the Affirmed Handicap's history, winning the race in 1995 with Mr. Purple.

"I remember Think Snow very well, because there was something very unusual about him," McAnally said. "Something I've never seen in any other horse, and hopefully I never will see again.

"He was a beautiful horse," the trainer continued. "But in his action, his hind foot would reach up and hit his elbow. And I mean to the point that it would get raw and absolutely bleed. We did everything we could to protect him, like putting different kinds of pads on his feet."

The elbow joint in a Thoroughbred is located approximately where the foreleg joins the torso. A more common injury to the elbow can result from a horse rubbing a hind foot on the joint while at rest in a stall. Old-timers call the resulting fluid-filled swelling a shoe boil. Think Snow, however, was more creative.

"It got to the point where he just kept hitting that elbow, both working and in his races," McAnally noted. "He did it that day at Hollywood running against Affirmed."

Syncopate, a son of Marshua's Dancer who won stakes in the East and the West, represented a certain Thoroughbred ideal in McAnally's experience, although none of them are without flaws.

"What a monster," the trainer said. "He was just a big bully. He had a gorgeous Arabian head, and he was built like a bodybuilder, a real Arnold Schwarzenegger. He also had a great big old knot on one knee, an arthritic knee, I think he might have broken as a 2-year-old before we got him. He would wake up and come out of his stall lame, loosen up and then give his all.

"At a shorter distance, I think Syncopate might have given Affirmed a hassle," McAnally added. "But going a mile and a sixteenth, no, I don't think so. I don't know if we ever seriously thought we could beat him. He was a great horse. I mean a great horse."