10/28/2002 12:00AM

Horse of Year candidates are both flawed


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - So who is Horse of the Year?

Too many trees will give up their lives for the copy that will be written on the topic. But, now that the 19th Breeders' Cup is in the books, it really is the $64,000 question.

Before the matter of Horse of the Year can be addressed, divisional champions must be identified. The outcomes of Saturday's eight Breeders' Cup races produced four mortal locks for the nine divisional championships and one near lock.

By virtue of his victory in the Juvenile, which completed a 4-for-4 campaign but was aided by the speed-favoring main track, Vindication is a cinch for champion 2-year-old male. I wonder, however, what would have happened had Hold That Tiger broken with the field, handled the surface, and if he wasn't racing against the grain of the track and extremely wide. He ran a huge race to finish third.

Likewise, Storm Flag Flying completed a 4-for-4 season and wrapped up the 2-year-old filly title in the Juvenile Fillies, which wasn't as close as it may have appeared. If you look closely, you can see Storm Flag Flying was flicking her ears back and forth coming to the wire, a sure sign that she was playing around out there.

Another lock for a championship is Azeri, who rode the crest of the track to an impressive victory in the Distaff and put a bow on the older filly and mare division. The Distaff was the race that really suggested there was a favored running style Saturday. Imperial Gesture almost held on for second despite the fact she missed the break, was denied her fondness for racing on the early lead, and looked clearly fatigued in midstretch. Obviously, it was preferable to be on the lead or pretty close to it.

The other cinch is Orientate, who determinedly got up to win the Sprint over Thunderello, another horse who outran his past performances thanks to the tilt of the track. No one comes close to Orientate in this division.

The near lock for a championship is High Chaparral, who kicked strongly into a slow pace to prove decidedly best in the Turf. High Chaparral is only a near-lock in the Turf because this was his only start in this country, and you never know with certainty what the Eclipse Award electorate will do with such a horse. But, High Chaparral beat two of America's three best turf horses - With Anticipation and Denon - while the third, Beat Hollow, was ineffective in the Mile.

From the four remaining divisions, two were likely decided even though the probable champions lost on Saturday. War Emblem proved again in his eighth-place finish in the Classic that he's just an ordinary horse when denied the early lead. But since Medaglia d'Oro and Came Home didn't step up with a win in the Classic, War Emblem's victories in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Haskell trump anything his contemporaries accomplished, and he should be champion 3-year-old male.

Farda Amiga fared better Saturday, finishing second to Azeri in the Distaff. That placing combined with earlier wins in the Kentucky Oaks and Alabama, likely earned her the 3-year-old filly title.

The two divisions that were not decided in the Breeders' Cup were turf filly-mare and older male. Starine made a strong bid with her emphatic victory in the Filly and Mare Turf. But, it was only her first win of the year, and it may not have eclipsed Golden Apples's wins in the Yellow Ribbon, Beverly D., and Santa Ana, even though Starine beat Golden Apples on Saturday. It could well be that this division will be settled in next month's Matriarch at Hollywood Park.

The older male division is the most unsettled of them all. Volponi's stunning victory in the Classic at 43-1 will earn him some support for a divisional title because he came up with a big performance in the biggest Breeders' Cup race. At the same time, it will cause others to reconsider Street Cry, who retired in early September, and the deceased Left Bank.

Now that we know the landscape, who is Horse of the Year? With the older male division, which in most years is a source for prime Horse of the Year contenders, so muddy that it can't even produce a divisional leader, it looks like the two contenders for Horse of the Year are War Emblem and Azeri. Both are imperfect. War Emblem's flaws are obvious, and he never won a race against older opponents. Azeri, whose candidacy got a huge boost Saturday with the failures of so many others, won only races restricted to fillies and mares. She never beat males, and that is a big sticking point for me. But, War Emblem and Azeri are the least imperfect of all the possible Horse of the Year candidates.

My line on Horse of the Year: Azeri: 3-5, War Emblem: 8-5.