07/27/2001 12:00AM

This is not your dad's San Diego Handicap


DEL MAR, Calif. - There is something special about a race named after your very own home town, unless it is the New York Handicap or the Los Angeles Handicap, neither of which puts you in particularly exclusive company.

San Diego is a serious-sized city known primarily for its weather. While this is better than making headlines because of rampant political corruption or industrial waste, a reputation based on temperature and rainfall tends to belittle the more tangible accomplishments of its citizenry.

For purposes of this discussion, let's just cut to what is really important. No San Diego, no San Diego County Fair. No fair, no Del Mar, and no reason at all for Southern Californians to seek out the natural beauty of the Pacific Coast ranging northward from the San Diego Bay.

It was not an accident that Bing Crosby and his fellow investors gravitated this direction from their Hollywood haunts in the mid-1930's to create a summer playground within hailing distance of the Mexican border.

This was the Hamptons without the hurricanes. Warm Springs without the funny water.

This reporter first lived on the east side of India Street, in the flight path of Lindbergh Field and about five miles from the San Diego Zoo. Make of that what you wish. The west side of India Street was replaced a few years later by the retaining wall that supports Interstate 5, giving new meaning to a mother's exhortation, "Don't play in the street."

The San Diego Handicap has a few more gray hairs. It began life in 1937 as a sprint. In 1948 it was switched to 1 1/16 miles on the main track and has remained at that distance ever after, with the exception of a three-year cluster of nine-furlong runnings that proved nothing at all.

Since the mid-'60's, every San Diego winner has lived in the shadow of Native Diver. He won the race three straight years, beginning in 1963 and ending in 1965 when he equaled the track record of 1:40 while carrying 131 pounds. The record still stands, and over the ensuing decades no horse has won a Del Mar stakes with a heavier package.

We used to be impressed. Nowadays, such tales of hauling weight sound like a grandfather's lament that he had to walk 30 miles through a blizzard just to go to work in a coal mine. Even the system of weight assignments itself is being called into question, a needless exercise in the modern racing world. To a certain extent, Tom Robbins agrees.

"The job of a handicapper now is really to make everybody feel okay with the weight that was assigned," said Robbins, who has been Del Mar's racing secretary since 1985.

"It's no longer a challenge of making all the horses finish evenly at the wire. Those days are long gone. And I think there is some thinking to shift away from handicaps. But everybody has to do it at once - nobody can blink - or else the whole thing breaks down."

Del Mar inaugurated the $1 million Pacific Classic in 1991 and made it a weight-for-age race right out of the box. This immediately removed the racing secretary from the promotion of the event. In 10 runnings, the average size of the Classic field has been roughly seven starters.

Robbins has maintained the San Diego as a handicap, however. And in some ways it makes sense to have a race with weight concessions serve as a well-defined prep for the big show. Of course, it can also backfire. If a horse fails to get close to a highweight with a five-pound concession, what's the point of wasting an effort at level weights the next time, even if it is for four times the money?

This year, quite by chance, the San Diego is coming up stronger than any major race for older horses run in California this year, including the Santa Anita Handicap and the Hollywood Gold Cup. Captain Steve, Futural, Skimming, Budroyale, and Freedom Crest make the race worth watching from all angles.

Robbins responded with weights on the big five ranging from Captain Steve's 122 to Freedom Crest's 116.

"It's great," Robbins said, "unless some horse freaks and runs off with it like Skimming did last year. Then who'd want to run against him at level weights?"

Skimming carried 112 pounds and a very hungry Garrett Gomez to win the 2000 San Diego by eight lengths. This year Skimming carries 120, the same as Futural, and Gomez gets to eat.

Being a realist, and scrambling for the same pool of top older horses as his counterparts at other major tracks, Robbins has no particular longing for the old days of crushing imposts and double-digit weight spreads in handicaps. In fact, he was hard-pressed to recall if he had ever assigned any horse as much as 130 pounds under any circumstances.

"I think I put 130 on John Henry, for the Eddie Read Handicap one year," Robbins recalled, citing Del Mar's top grass race. John Henry trained each summer at Del Mar, but usually ended up running in the Arlington Million instead, at level weights.

"He never carried the 130, or ever raced at Del Mar for that matter," Robbins said. "But it felt good. At least I can say I did it once."