11/08/2004 1:00AM

On merit, it must be Ghostzapper

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NEW YORK - The matter of Smarty Jones over Ghostzapper for Horse of the Year is a little more serious than people might think.

At a seminar Saturday at Churchill Downs, the first thing I did was ask for a show of hands for which horse those in attendance supported for Horse of the Year, Ghostzapper or Smarty Jones. It was a shock that more hands went up for Smarty Jones. It was more of a shock that it wasn't even close.

I know this wasn't a scientific poll, not that they matter very much. And I know that the general public doesn't vote for the Eclipse Awards. But, the general racing public knows the game as well as many Eclipse Award voters do. In some instances, they know it much better. It is reasonable to think that the sentiments held by the people who support racing on a regular basis would be shared by at least some of the people who work in or cover racing on a regular basis.

Smarty Jones was a terrific horse. He electrified the nation with a truly sensational victory in the Preakness, and would have been a Triple Crown winner - a completely worthy one at that - had he not been asked to run the fastest middle half-mile in the 136-year history of the Belmont Stakes. While no one liked Smarty Jones's early retirement, the backlash over it was out of proportion. It's fine to be altruistic, but what would you do if $39 million were presented to you on a silver platter?

Still, frankly it is amazing that this discussion is even taking place. Smarty Jones never raced against older horses, let alone defeated them. The 3-year-olds he dominated were a mediocre group. Not one prominent member of this division won a meaningful race over older horses except for Kitten's Joy, and he did it on turf, against a profoundly weak group of older turf specialists.

Ghostzapper, on the other hand, won major stakes at seven furlongs, 1 1/8 miles, and 1 1/4 miles during a perfect, albeit abbreviated campaign. He was asked to run hard early in the Woodward, but he won. In the Breeders' Cup Classic, Ghostzapper thoroughly humbled a field that included five - count 'em - opponents who were legitimate candidates for Horse of the Year. No Eddingtons or Imperialisms in that company line.

The seminar attendees at Churchill Downs who believe Smarty Jones should be Horse of the Year didn't take that position because he won the Kentucky Derby at their home track. The thinking was, Smarty Jones did more for horse racing than any other horse, not just this year, but in many years. That may be true, but that is not the criterion on which a Horse of the Year should be chosen. Hopeless maiden Zippy Chippy, whose unsuccessful attempts to escape futility have now reached triple digits, has also, on occasion, put racing in the mainstream media.

Whether there is an objective handicapper out there who isn't sure that the Ghostzapper seen in any one of the four starts he made this year wouldn't handle - even manhandle - Smarty Jones at his very best is immaterial. Although that is almost certainly true, it is also pure conjecture. We do know, however, that on of his Breeders' Cup Classic alone, Ghostzapper has the superior record. Horse of the Year is not supposed to be about inferiority.

How much should Azeri carry?

One of the few horses who competed in the Breeders' Cup and will race again this year is Azeri, who finished fifth to Ghostzapper in the Classic. Azeri will probably move back in with females in the Falls City Handicap at Churchill Downs on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25. Note that the Falls City is a handicap, which means few will want to be in the shoes of Doug Bredar, Churchill's director of racing and racing secretary. Bredar is the one who will make Azeri's weight assignment. Given the quality of fillies and mares still left in action, and likely to run in the Falls City, Azeri should probably be asked to carry the grandstand. But that's not all there is to it. Bredar is also on the spot because he has to be careful not to weight Azeri out of the race, and risk losing a star attraction for his track.

"I don't like to speculate on what kind of weight I'll put on her just yet because the race hasn't closed yet, and I need to see the nominations first," Bredar said. "Whatever I do put on her, it will be a fair weight. I have to put a fair weight on her for other racing secretaries who may have to weight her for other races, and to make it a competitive race for bettors. A lot is going to depend on whether she is in with Grade 3 mares and ungraded winners, or if she's in with other Grade 1 and 2 horses."

Of course, if Azeri hasn't had enough of running against males, she could also wait a day and run in the Clark Handicap.