05/22/2001 12:00AM

Handicap division blooming fast

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LAS VEGAS - While the crop of this year's 3-year-olds appears to be deep, it will be hard pressed to surpass the success achieved by last year's class. The 3-year-olds dominated last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, taking the first four spots with Tiznow, Giant's Causeway, Captain Steve, and Albert the Great.

Over the last few decades, the handicap ranks have been thin due to either injury or early retirement based on economics. But now a potent handicap division awaits the current group of 3-year-olds at the end of the year. Tiznow, Captain Steve, and Albert the Great are back, and the older crop of runners is every bit as deep as this year's group of 3-year-olds.

In addition to Tiznow (sired by Cee's Tizzy), Captain Steve (Fly So Free) and Albert the Great (Go for Gin), the handicap division got a boost recently with the return of last year's Travers Stakes winner, Unshaded (Unbridled), who made a triumphant 4-year-old debut last week at Churchill Downs. Include (Broad Brush) tossed his hat in the ring with a victory over Albert the Great in the Pimlico Special, and Broken Vow (Unbridled), who has developed into a serious 4-year-old, is being pointed to the Massachusetts Handicap. Throw in Oaklawn Handicap winner Traditionally (Mr. Prospector), who runs in Monday's Metropolitan Handicap, and the long-awaited return of Red Bullet (Unbridled) this summer, and the handicap division looks imposing. Unbridled could have a stunning second-half season if his trio of Broken Vow, Unshaded, and Red Bullet are successful.

One of racing's longtime axioms is that a horse does not fully mature until age 4. All things being equal, a good older horse will usually defeat a good younger horse, unless the younger horse is of exceptional quality. There is no dearth of examples to underscore this point.

Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid graced the racing scene in three successive years. As great as Affirmed was at 3, he could not handle the older Seattle Slew when they met at the end of the year. In the 1978 Marlboro Cup, Affirmed made a run at pacesetting Seattle Slew but could not gain any ground. Following that race, they met again in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, but while that race proved memorable for Seattle Slew's gut-wrenching second to Exceller, Affirmed's saddle slipped during the race and he was distanced. Although Seattle Slew had his number, Affirmed was awarded Horse of the Year because he won the elusive Triple Crown.

Although he didn't win the Triple Crown, like Seattle Slew and Affirmed, Spectacular Bid was brilliant at 3 and was named Horse of the Year, although he could not get by the older Affirmed in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

When Riva Ridge met Canonero II in the Stymie Handicap in 1972, it was the first time in many years that two Kentucky Derby winners faced each other. Riva Ridge was favored off his victories in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes while Canonero II's best days seemed far behind him. Canonero II collared Riva Ridge around the far turn and they entered the stretch virtually as a team. The older Canonero II spurted away from Riva Ridge, winning by four lengths, restoring some of his lost glory.

Forego, John Henry, and Kelso never would have achieved immortality if they were not raced beyond 3. But it's not just geldings that have suddenly become different animals after 3. Gun Bow, who was ordinary at 3, became a powerhouse at 4 and was Kelso's greatest adversary. Bold Bidder was a nice colt at 3, but developed into a major handicap horse at 4. Ack Ack was always a good colt, but at 3 he was hardly mentioned in the same breath as other members of the great class of 1966, which included Majestic Prince, Arts and Letters, Reviewer, and Top Knight. At age 5 in 1971, however, he won 7 of 8 races and was named Horse of the Year, champion older horse and champion sprinter.

There are many recent examples of such turnarounds. Cigar was an ordinary racehorse early in his career, and although his transformation into a Horse of the Year was due to a switch in racing surfaces, it may also have been due in part to late maturity.

The most recent example is Traditionally. Highly regarded since his birth because of his royal bloodlines (Mr. Prospector-Personal Ensign, by Private Account), the full brother to Miner's Mark and Our Emblem (and half-brother to My Flag) showed glimpses of ability at 2 and 3, but never reached the level expected of him. Trainer Shug McGaughey even tried him on the turf to see if the change in surface would wake him up. But he was no Lure, and McGaughey returned him to the dirt this year. When he emerged as a 4-year-old in Florida this winter, he looked like a different horse. After finishing second in his first start this year, he won two allowance races and then won the Oaklawn Handicap by 5 1/4 lengths.

So many runners never get the opportunity to race after 3 and we'll never know what might have been. It's frightening to think how good Secretariat would have been at 4.