11/05/2007 1:00AM

New stars gone, newer stars coming

EmailNEW YORK - If you're like me, your head is probably spinning from all the prominent racehorses who have been retired in the last week or so. Among those who have been hustled off to new careers in breeding are Lawyer Ron, Street Sense, Hard Spun, English Channel, Lahudood, Honey Ryder, and Balance. Corinthian will also stand at stud next year, although it is unclear whether he might squeeze in one more start, perhaps in the Cigar Mile. Maryfield, Octave, and Dream Rush were sold in Sunday's Fasig-Tipton sale in Kentucky, and while it's not impossible that one or two of them might have their racing careers extended, they were sold primarily as broodmare prospects.

Of course, a huge potential retirement would be that of likely Horse of the Year Curlin. While there is a large and vocal rooting section pulling for Curlin to race next year as a 4-year-old, when, with natural physical maturity, he might be a significantly better performer than he was this year, issues with his ownership and the lure of mega-millions from breeders make retirement a distinct possibility. And since plans for fellow 3-year-old Any Given Saturday are undecided, there is more than just a fair chance that we've also seen the last of him.

What is at play here is the old tug of war over whether top Thoroughbred racehorses are more valuable in the breeding shed or on the track, and right now the breeders are winning in a rout.

The fact that we are currently in a cycle where top horses are worth more as breeders rather than racers can't be regarded as good for the overall health of the sport because all it does is alienate the most important faction of the sport, the fans. How can racing fans be asked to embrace horses as new stars, and yet almost as soon as they do, those horses are gone? This is not just a little ironic, because if it were not for the dollars racing fans push through the betting windows, which fund purses, there would be precious little incentive to own horses, and by extension, breed them.

In any event, with so much serious quality having just departed the track, and with the possibility that more might soon follow, it's not easy right now to be optimistic about the available talent pool for the 2008 racing season. The good news is there are always key retirements at the end of every racing season, and yet the sport has the remarkable knack of replenishing itself. It helps that there are some very prominent horses who are scheduled to race again next year, among them Rags to Riches, Midnight Lute, Tiago, Ginger Punch, Hystericalady, Nashoba's Key, Lady Joanne, and Kip Deville. And maybe we'll get very, very lucky, and next year's 3-year-old crop will be nearly as good as this year's was. But that is a lot to hope for. This year's 3-year-old crop, beyond being unusually strong, contributed so much to the quality of the sport this year that it's scary to contemplate how this racing season would have unfolded without them.

No matter what, however, all the big races that define the sport will be run next year. And more likely than not, the field of the Kentucky Derby will again push 20, and there will again be a bunch of Breeders' Cup races with the full complement of 14 starters. That said, it is important to remember the distinction that it is not the big races that make racing's stars. Horses are either stars, or they're not.

Changing gears a bit here, I agree with the general consensus that the only equine division this year where there is even a whiff of suspense for a year-end championship is the older male division. Lawyer Ron is certainly the favorite off his victories in the Woodward, Whitney, and Oaklawn Handicap. But those Eclipse Award voters who aren't entirely satisfied that Lawyer Ron's two big wins - the Whitney and Woodward - occurred during just a five-week span over the same Saratoga racetrack might hold out to see if Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Midnight Lute can conclude his campaign with a third straight overwhelming Grade 1 win in the Cigar Mile. Or they might even cycle back to defending Horse of the Year Invasor, whose dominant wins early this year in the Donn Handicap and Dubai World Cup made him in the minds of many the best horse to set foot on dirt anywhere this year, even if he had to be retired prematurely due to injury.

Thinking of Invasor, I recalled how his meeting with Discreet Cat in the Dubai World Cup (which turned out to be a total non-contest) was billed in some quarters as one that could have significant impact on our year-end championships. Frankly, at that time, I could not see how a race run in March could, on its own, have any bearing on any championship in the Northern Hemisphere. But putting aside the question of whether a race run outside of this country should even count when it comes to determining U.S. champions, consider this: Given how things played out in this year's handicap division, and remembering how impressive Invasor was in Dubai, if the Dubai World Cup this year doesn't, on its own, have significant impact on the older male Eclipse Award, then it never will.