08/01/2008 12:00AM

Memory of Ancient Title still fresh


DEL MAR, Calif. - Big Brown will be dominating the racing debate again this weekend, reducing the sport to a one-horse show. Once his dust has cleared after Sunday's Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, though, it will be time to turn what's left of the attention span to Saratoga Springs, where three Thoroughbreds will be honored on Monday with induction at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

Three horses, by the way, who did more than Big Brown will ever be allowed to do.

Manila took domestic turf racing to a new level in the mid-1980s with a record of 11 wins and 3 seconds in 14 tries on grass. He was stopped cold at a crucial point in the 1986 Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita and still came on to beat Theatrical, Estrapade, and Dancing Brave. Forget about Curlin. If ever there was an American runner who should have tried the Arc de Triomphe, Manila was the guy.

Inside Information, who carried the Phipps brand, overcame the disadvantages of a privileged youth to soar through a career of 14 wins in 17 starts while making tough races look like child's play. She won the Ashland by 5 1/2 lengths, the Acorn by 11, the Ruffian by 11, and the Molly Pitcher by nearly seven. No one should have been surprised when she won the 1995 Breeders' Cup Distaff by 13 1/2 lengths, and yet it took the breath away.

Ancient Title is less familiar than those two on a national scale, but his name still sends shivers of delight through California fans of a certain age. Mine, for instance, and not only because his career overlapped a series of very impressionable years. The memory of Ancient Title burns hot because he set standards that should be treasured just as much today as they were when he was . . .

o Sweeping the Strub Series for 4-year-olds at Santa Anita by winning races at seven, nine, and 10 furlongs in the space of 29 days.

o Winning every one of his seven races at seven furlongs, each of them a stakes event.

o Taking major stakes races at ages 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8, and hitting the board in 44 of 57 starts.

All this was happening between 1972 and 1978, which means the Ancient Title story usually was swamped by the antics of his more famous contemporaries on the national scene. But while Californians had to appreciate Secretariat and Forego from afar, they got Ancient Title in the flesh, in just about every race of consequence, and he was never anything less than entertaining.

Inside Information is 17 and is still producing Phipps babies in Kentucky. Manila, a foal of 1983, was sold by Lane's End Farm to stand at stud in Turkey, back in 1997. As for Ancient Title, he lived only three years after his retirement before he died from complications due to sand colic, in September of 1981, while pensioned at a California farm. Long gone, but not forgotten, he has a Grade 1 sprint named in his honor and now has a plaque at the Hall of Fame.

Don and Lynn Meyers of Montague, Calif. (pop. 1,500, give or take), were already planning a cross-country car trip this summer to visit friends in Minnesota. When news reached them that Ancient Title was being welcomed into the Hall of Fame, they jumped at the chance to represent the family at the induction ceremonies, which means they'll be flying from the Twin Cities to upstate New York this weekend. Lynn Meyers is the granddaughter of the owners and breeders of Ancient Title, Bill and Ethel Kirkland.

"I'll be introducing my wife," said Don Meyers, a retired California law enforcement officer. "I guess they'll want me to say a few things about that whole experience of watching him race."

That should be easy. A classic blood bay with black points, white trim, and perfect posture, Ancient Title was very much a family pet, the big horse in the relatively small Kirkland stable trained by Keith Stucki, a West Coast veteran. (Stucki, 89, is still very much alive but not quite well enough to make the trip to Saratoga.)

"Lynn and I were married in 1964, so I was fortunate enough to see a lot of Ancient Title's races, like the Strub Series, and his win in the Hollywood Gold Cup," Meyers went on. "He had some personality. But what I remember is his heart - major, major heart."

The record bears this out. Of his 20 stakes wins, Ancient Title won nine of them by less than a length, including his breakout score in the 1975 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga, when Stucki took his star on the road.

"He carried 128 pounds, and he was locked in a life-and-death stretch run with a horse carrying a lot less," Meyers noted. "The other horse actually passed him, and Ancient Title dug right back in and got him."

Let the record show that Ancient Title defeated subsequent Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Group Plan by a neck that day at Saratoga.

"They sent us the film of the Whitney right after the race," Meyers added. "I put it on videotape and never thought I'd do anything with it, although I do like to watch it every once in awhile. And now I'm taking with me to the Hall of Fame."