07/31/2003 12:00AM

Layoff question in Whitney


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - A year ago at Saratoga, two unusual performances by 3-year-olds defied conventional training and handicapping wisdom, prompting similar experiments that may have influenced last year's Breeders' Cup Classic and may determine the outcome of Saturday's Whitney Handicap.

The influential performances were those turned in by Farda Amiga and Repent. In last year's Alabama, Farda Amiga overcame a 106-day layoff after winning the Kentucky Oaks May 3 to get up in the final strides. Then a week later, Repent came off an even longer 140-day layoff after the April 6 Illinois Derby with a similarly strong rally that fell just a half-length short of catching Medaglia d'Oro in the Travers.

It seemed that those huge efforts at classic distances off long layoffs may have influenced the thinking of the trainers of the nation's top 3-year-olds last fall. Bobby Frankel with Medaglia d'Oro, Bob Baffert with War Emblem, and Paco Gonzalez with Came Home all chose to bring their colts into the Breeders' Cup Classic off nine-week layoffs, a plan that had never led to a Classic victory.

The results were unsuccessful, though subject to interpretation. War Emblem and Came Home finished off the board in poor performances and never raced again. Medaglia d'Oro did run a distant second but seemed empty in the stretch when Volponi shot past him. Maybe War Emblem and Came Home weren't going to win a truly run race at 10 furlongs anyway, and maybe Medaglia d'Oro would not have run any better with a more recent prep. But the results seemed to confirm the old wisdom that Grade 1 dirt routes are rarely won off long layoffs.

The question arises again for the Whitney, where Medaglia d'Oro is 4-5 on the morning line for his first rematch with Volponi since the Classic. He is a year older and the Whitney is a furlong shorter, but the favorite has not been to the races since winning the Oaklawn Handicap April 5, so he will be running off a 17-week, or 119-day, break. Can he do it?

The glib answer is that he's a Bobby Frankel trainee in a Grade 1 race, so perhaps he can jump backward through a flaming hoop while blindfolded if Frankel says he can. The trainer has started horses in 28 of the nation's 47 Grade 1 races this year and won 15 of them, a record pace that makes second-guessing his methods seem foolhardy.

Frankel has always been exceptionally good off layoffs, but generally with horses whose running style may be better equipped to overcome a vacation from the races - stretch-running dirt horses or grass horses who typically run faster late than early. It could be a whole different game if Medaglia d'Oro faces significant early pressure from Proud Citizen and then has to hold off the cavalry down the stretch.

He might work out a soft trip under Jerry Bailey, and he might simply be the best horse, but if pace and fitness prove to be issues, there is legitimate talent behind him to register an upset. Volponi is always eligible to run his Classic again one of these days. Saarland's Met Mile was excellent, and his Brooklyn is a throwout. If it rains, which it might, the favorite has off-track Saratoga scores in the Jim Dandy and Travers, but Evening Attire moves up even more in Saratoga slop.

Trifecta rule should be scrapped

One of the silliest racing rules on the books in New York is the one canceling trifecta wagering if there are fewer than six starters, even if the field is reduced to five with a scratch at the gate. It has happened twice already at the Saratoga meeting, forcing refunded pools that reduce revenue to the track and the state, give heartache to bettors holding winning combinations that become worth only their purchase price, and dent the bankrolls of neophytes who don't understand they're entitled to refunds.

The rule was instituted in the wake of the New York race-fixing investigations of the early 1980's, when regulators were unable to prove major cases but felt obliged to leave some legacy for their efforts. The justification for the rule was that it might be too easy to rig a trifecta in a five-horse race by stiffing just one or two entrants.

This logic borders on the preposterous. Why would criminal masterminds fool around with low-paying trifectas in five-horse fields when it would be far more lucrative to keep a heavy favorite out of the money in a 12-horse field? It becomes completely absurd when the sixth horse in a race is scratched in the paddock or at the gate, presumably offering little time for the swindlers to rearrange their schemes.

The rule should be eliminated entirely, and at the very least should be amended to say that if there are six horses in the race when betting opens, there will still be a trifecta if five of them start.