12/10/2003 1:00AM

Horse of the Year - by Beyers

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BOSTON - In 1998 it was the obvious horse, Skip Away. In 1999 it was a dark horse, Running Stag. In 2000 it was a horse of a completely different color - a sprinter, Kona Gold. In 2001 it was Lido Palace - a lukewarm choice in a mediocre season. And in 2002 it was Left Bank by the thinnest of margins.

Who is the Beyer Speed Figure Horse of the Year for 2003?

This year's competition is strictly a three-horse race. And, even though all three had truly outstanding years, the winner actually towers over the two runners-up. In fact, this year's winner averaged a full point higher than any previous winner. As measured by the Beyer Speed Figures, his performance in 2003 establishes him as clearly superior to any other horse this year. Indeed, his consistently powerful speed figures mark him out as one of the most impressive runners in the past decade.

Candy Ride certainly had the potential to be this year's winner, but he only raced three times in this country - and only twice on the dirt. He earned a 111 Beyer in an allowance win on June 7 at Hollywood Park. Then, after a turf race on July 4, he destroyed the field in the Pacific Classic on Aug. 24 at Del Mar. His winning Beyer was a spectacular 123. But his owners decided that they didn't want to exhaust him after this furious schedule (three races in eleven weeks), so they put him on the shelf. Since Candy Ride didn't race the minimum requirement of four times on the dirt in 2003, he does not qualify for consideration as Beyer Speed Figure Horse of the Year.

Pleasantly Perfect, the winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic, earned a huge Beyer of 119 in capturing the year's biggest race, the Breeders' Cup Classic. But his early-season efforts were not very strong, and he averaged only 111 for the year - not even close to contention for top honors.

Perfect Drift emerged as a competitive handicap horse, and even defeated Mineshaft - one of the year's Big Three. But the 117 Perfect Drift earned in that effort at Churchill Downs was his only championship-caliber Beyer. Mostly he ran figures in the 110-112 range. He averaged only 112.5.

Two sprinters had impressive seasons and had to be considered. Shake You Down began the year as a solid regional sprinter, but immediately after being claimed in March by trainer Scott Lake he rocketed into the Beyer stratosphere. He put together an impressive eight-race run, which included a pair of 118's and a 121. But even during this streak he averaged a Beyer of only 114.6 (dropping his lowest Beyer Figure out of the calculations, which we do for every candidate who raced more than four times). And if you include his entire 2003 record, Shake You Down's average falls way down to a noncompetitive 108.7. Aldebaran also ran some powerful races, but he also threw in too many ordinary ones. His average for the year: 110.1.

That leads us to the Big Three, who stood far above the rest in this outstanding season for older handicap horses.

Second runner-up: This horse showed toughness, durability, and remarkable consistency at a very high level. After two efforts below 110 early in the year, he put together a powerful string of Beyers in seven consecutive races - losing only once, by a head. His average Beyer for 2003: 115. Undeniably impressive, but only good enough for third place in this year's stiff competition. Even his 116.1 average during that memorable seven-race run would be good enough only for second place in 2003. The second runner-up: Mineshaft.

First runner-up: This horse also raced at a consistently high level - from early January at Santa Anita right through late November at Aqueduct. After you drop his one poor effort on a sloppy track, he averaged a 115.75 Beyer for 2003 - topped off by a figure of 120 in the Cigar Mile. But even before that final race, his average still was higher than Mineshaft's - although by only one-tenth of a point. The clear first runner-up: Congaree.

The winner: This horse raced only five times during 2003, so perhaps he did not accomplish as much in terms of stakes victories as Mineshaft and Congaree. But his Beyer Figures overwhelm his competition. His average for his four qualifying races: 117. Even if you calculate his average based on all five of his races (including his low Beyer of 111), he still takes top prize with an average of 115.8. The clear, record-setting winner for Beyer Speed Figure Horse of the Year: Medaglia d'Oro.

Mineshaft will almost certainly win the voting for traditional Horse of the Year honors. But a careful look at his nine races should at least give the voters some pause. Although obviously he won more races than Medaglia d'Oro, it could be argued that Mineshaft never faced top-quality competition in any one of those races. So he not only fails to measure up to Medaglia d'Oro in terms of Beyer Figures, but he also falls short on strength of schedule. For example, in his famed seven-race run from March at the Fair Grounds through September at Belmont, he had extremely weak opponents in at least four of those races, and relatively weak opposition in the rest. When he finally ran against a distinctly second-tier opponent, Perfect Drift, he actually lost by a head with no visible excuse. And beyond Perfect Drift and Volponi (another second-tier runner), he never faced a serious challenger in any other race.

Medaglia d'Oro also faced relatively easy opposition in his two galloping wins early in the year. And he also recorded a win against Volponi (by one length in the Whitney). But after that his competition got much tougher. He finished three lengths behind in Candy Ride's monstrous effort in the Pacific Classic - perhaps the most powerful race of 2003. And he dug in with great courage in one of the fastest Breeders' Cup Classics in history. He dueled for the entire 1 1/4 miles with the speedy Congaree, and yielded to only the opportunistic Pleasantly Perfect, in the last 50 yards. And he earned a Beyer Figure of 117 under even those most testing of circumstances. Mineshaft never ran as impressive a race.

Mineshaft will be voted Horse of the Year. That seems inevitable. But he was not the fastest horse of 2003. Medaglia d'Oro earned that title - by a wide margin.