09/23/2004 11:00PM

New twist on classic argument

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POMONA, Calif. - The National Broadcasting Company is devoting 90 minutes of its valuable airtime late Sunday afternoon to a piece of Breeders' Cup programming designed to whet the appetite for the World Championships coming up on Oct. 30 at Lone Star Park.

Lone Star is the nominal backdrop for the teaser, titled "Twenty to One: The Breeders' Cup Legacy," with Tom Hammond and Charlsie Cantey playing host, sitting in chairs near the winner's circle while a steady prairie wind whips banners in the background.

The show loosely recalls some of the more vivid Breeders' Cup moments: Cigar's 1995 Breeders' Cup Classic, the Personal Ensign-Winning Colors bout in the

1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff, Charlie Whittingham at work saddling Classic winners Ferdinand and Sunday Silence, and Richard Mandella's four-bagger in 2003 are among them.

There is a certain nostalgic delight in hearing trainer Bill Mott understate Cigar as having "a real efficient style for winning races," followed by Jerry Bailey's flat-out pronouncement of the horse as "a freak of nature."

And it was good to be reminded that, for all of trainer Shug McGaughey's Breeders' Cup success and recent Hall of Fame acclaim, the 1988 Distaff marked his first victory in a Breeders' Cup event, when Personal Ensign and jockey Randy Romero got up to win by a nose. McGaughey's conclusion?

"It wasn't anything that I did. Wasn't anything that Randy did. It was just her determination that day to win a race."

"Twenty to One," however, has more in mind than a simple sampling of random Breeders' Cup memories. As it turns out, the point of the exercise is the presentation of a fantasy race involving the 19 winners of the Breeders' Cup Classic, 1984-2003.

As a concept, the idea of a fantasy race pitting horses of different eras has been around for about 56 years, dating roughly to the moment Citation's fans began quarreling with the strident survivors of the Man o' War epoch. (For purposes of this report, the great debate of the 19th century over the relative merits of Lexington and Salvator is being ignored out of sheer exhaustion. Who in their right mind can truly choose?)

The late Kent Hollingsworth, in his capacity as editor of The Blood-Horse, noted in a 1968 commentary that "there is a fundamental urge to place greatness in perspective - which is impossible, of course, for there is no fixed standard of greatness in a single era, much less different eras."

Hollingsworth's thoughts were triggered by a broadcast of "The Race of the Century" in April of 1968 on radio station WIOD in Miami. The fantasy heat was born of a study compiled by students from the Department of Computational and Statistical Science at the University of Liverpool. Whether or not their professors knew what was going on in the lab after hours remains unknown. But as far as American purists were concerned, the result - Citation by a neck over Man o' War, with Buckpasser third - was rubbish.

"We figured that if Man o' War were to be beaten again, it might be by Jim Dandy," Hollingsworth wrote, his words dripping with contempt. "But, barring that chance, Man o' War would remain the classic shoo-in."

Some 16 years later, Hollingsworth countered with a magazine poll of Blood-Horse readers, asking them to choose their favorites from among the 44 animals that had been voted Horse of the Year since the honor was begun, in 1936. From nearly 2,000 replies, Secretariat led the voting in a photo finish with Kelso. Citation "finished" third.

The pool of opinion that determined the order of finish for the Ultimate Breeders' Cup Classic was decidedly smaller. Only about 20 members of the print and broadcast media responded to the questionnaire, but then, we are so much busier today than we were back in the 80's.

"Twenty to One" briefly recaps the 20 Classics (don't forget that Tiznow won two of them - and he's still a Cal-bred!). Hammond then turns the show over to race announcer Tom Durkin for the re-creation, which is accompanied by some inventive videotape atmospherics, mostly culled from wide-angle shots of large Kentucky Derby fields and close-ups of pounding hooves. Some of the pictures have nothing to do with the Breeders' Cup Classic, but they are very pretty.

While your faithful correspondent had the exacta reversed (it figures), there will be those who dismiss the whole thing as irrelevant fluff. But that's nitpicking. The real objection to the concept is the idea that these 19 horses were the best 19 horses to have run in the Breeders' Cup Classic, which is not the case at all.

There are certainly any number of fans who would still back Seeking the Gold over Alysheba in 1988, or Silver Charm over Awesome Again in 1998, or either of those noble Europeans, Giant's Causeway and Sakhee, who were just edged by Tiznow.

What if Twilight Agenda had not bobbled at the start of the 1991 Classic, or if Gate Dancer had run straight in either of his narrow losses, in 1984 and '85? And then there was the runner-up to Sunday Silence in the 1989 Classic, a race that still deeply divides the nation.

"One voter simply put 'Easy Goer' at the top of his ballot," said Breeders' Cup publicist Jim Gluckson, who conducted the poll for the Ultimate Classic. "I guess he still hasn't gotten over it."

Chances are he never will.