02/03/2004 12:00AM

Is this Medaglia d'Oro's year?

Medaglia d'Oro has had many successes the last two years, but two of racing's biggest prizes, an Eclipse Award and the BC Classic, have eluded him.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Good, but not quite good enough. That has been the year-end rap on Medaglia d'Oro the past two years. He has been one of the leaders of his generation for two seasons now, through the Triple Crown grind and his subsequent glory at Saratoga as a 3-year-old in 2002, to the acclaim he received as one of the nation's best older horses in 2003.

Yet, he has not been able to win an Eclipse Award. won the Jim Dandy Stakes and Travers Stakes at Saratoga in 2002 to put himself in the running for the 3-year-old championship. But when he finished a distant second to Volponi in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Eclipse voters chose War Emblem, who beat Medaglia d'Oro in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but finished behind Medaglia d'Oro in the Belmont Stakes and Breeders' Cup.

Medaglia d'Oro had a similar scenario befall him last year. After winning the Strub Stakes, Oaklawn Handicap, and Whitney Handicap, he finished second to Candy Ride in Del Mar's Pacific Classic. A victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic might have swayed voters looking for an alternative to Mineshaft, who was retired before the Breeders' Cup. But Medaglia d'Oro finished second to Pleasantly Perfect and again became an also-ran in Eclipse Award voting.

He has become the answer to a trivia question - name the betting favorite in the Breeders' Cup Classic the past two years?

Now the calendar has turned to 2004. Many of those in Medaglia d'Oro's generation, like Mineshaft, have gone off to stud. But Medaglia d'Oro will continue to race at age 5, and there is nothing trainer Bobby Frankel wants to accomplish more with Medaglia d'Oro than to get him an Eclipse Award.

"If he wins the Breeders' Cup either year, he's Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old or champion older horse," Frankel said. "Because of circumstances, it hasn't worked out that way, but I hope to do it this year."

It is with that in mind that Medaglia d'Oro is leaving his base in California for Saturday's Grade 1, $500,000 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park. That race appealed far more to Frankel than last Saturday's Grade 2, $250,000 San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita.

"One thing I was good at in school was adding and subtracting," Frankel said the other morning at his barn at Hollywood Park. "I was good at math. The prize money's better, and it's a Group 1."

By running in the Donn, Medaglia d'Oro will have avoided Pleasantly Perfect, who won the San Antonio. In Florida, Medaglia d'Oro will face the popular Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide, the 3-year-old champ of 2003 who recently won a race at Gulfstream.

"I'm excited about running against Funny Cide," Frankel said. "I've got nothing against the people who own or train him. I just want to win the race. It's more important to win the race than to say we're running against Funny Cide."

Frankel is notorious for complaining about weights, but he did not mind Medaglia d'Oro having to give three pounds (122-119) to Funny Cide. "That's fair," he said of the spread.

A son of El Prado, Medaglia d'Oro has been in Frankel's barn for two years now. Early in his 3-year-old season, he was bought privately by Frankel and bloodstock agent Mark Reid on behalf of owner Ed Gann. Because of an often-interrupted campaign last year, Medaglia d'Oro is still lightly raced for his age. He has started just 15 times and finished first or second in 13 races.

"There really wasn't any thought to sending him to stud," Frankel said. "Mr. Gann wants to see him run. He's not as valuable as Empire Maker."

Medaglia d'Oro raced just five times last year, partly by design, partly by circumstance. Frankel prefers to space Medaglia d'Oro's races, but last year there were several unforeseen hiccups. Despite Frankel's initial reluctance, Medaglia d'Oro was scheduled to go to the Dubai World Cup in March. But on the eve of his trip, Frankel pulled out.

"He didn't eat up the night before he was going to go," Frankel said. "I was looking for an excuse not to go, and he gave it to me."

Two weeks later, Medaglia d'Oro won the Oaklawn Handicap. But after being sent to Frankel's barn at Belmont Park, Medaglia d'Oro tore up the inside of his right front foot. That required a lengthy layoff.

"We figure he stepped on himself when he was getting up in his stall. The whole wall was separated," Frankel said. "It took him a long time to get sound."

Medaglia d'Oro did not race again until August, when he won the Whitney. Frankel, in an uncharacteristic move, then sent Medaglia d'Oro across the country to race three weeks later in the Pacific Classic. Medaglia d'Oro ran a winning race that day - he earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 118 - but he ran into a buzzsaw in Candy Ride and had to settle for second.

"Coming back in three weeks, I don't know if he ran his best race, but I don't know if he was going to beat Candy Ride anyway," Frankel said.

Following the Breeders' Cup last fall, Frankel scheduled one more race for Medaglia d'Oro, but pulled the horse out of Churchill Downs's Clark Handicap because he was unhappy with Medaglia d'Oro's weight assignment.

"I was happy we didn't go to Churchill Downs," Frankel said. "The weather turned out crappy. Someone was watching over my decision. It was a bad track. I probably wouldn't have run him anyway."

Medaglia d'Oro was scheduled to leave California for Florida on Wednesday. When Medaglia d'Oro runs Saturday, it will be his first start in more than three months. He has been training sharply at Hollywood Park, but his feet, which have often been problematic, flared anew recently.

"He popped a quarter crack last week," Frankel said. "We patched it, and he's going good. He's moving perfect now. If he stays like he is, we'll be in really good shape."