02/23/2004 12:00AM

Odd couple now share record

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It is nothing short of heresy, even sacrilege, and most certainly a rabble-rousing incitement to all manner of wrong-headed assumptions.

Such things are being said about Wednesday's release of Mel Gibson's "Passion." But that's no big deal - just another Hollywood sword-and-sandals epic.

The real barbarity was inflicted upon the Thoroughbred racing game on Saturday at Santa Anita, when an underachieving 4-year-old gelding named Unfurl the Flag was given credit for equalling the seven-furlong track record set by Spectacular Bid in 1980.

Is nothing sacred anymore?

Racing can get very snobby about its time records. Flirt with Dr. Fager's main-track mile or Secretariat's 1 1/4 miles in the Kentucky Derby and you are messing with Motherhood, Apple Pie, and the All-American Way.

Of course, records set on notoriously speed-crazy California tracks are usually dismissed out of hand - unless they are set by a horse from the East. That is why Spectacular Bid's assault on the clock in early 1980 at Santa Anita Park remains burned in the memory.

Not only did Bid break a 26-year-old Santa Anita record for seven furlongs, he also blew Affirmed's 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita record out of the water, setting a North American main track record of 1:57.80 while winning the 10-furlong Strub Stakes. He also won the Santa Anita Handicap that winter in a freezing, driving rain.

As a result of last Saturday's drama, Unfurl the Flag will find his 1:20.11 alongside Spectacular Bid's 1:20 flat for the testing seven-eighths. Those who witnessed the event are aware that the track had undergone a series of hard-packed seals during a siege of rainy weather, and that Unfurl the Flag took the utmost advantage to win his fourth race in 14 starts. Years from now, though, only the names, dates, and final times will remain.

"I think I'm going to cry," said Buddy Delp, keeper of the Spectacular Bid flame. "Who do I congratulate?"

That would be David Bernstein, who trains Unfurl the Flag for the partnership of Gaylord Ailshie and Tom and Rose Harris.

"Of course, records are made to be broken," Delp went on, after recovering from the initial shock. "But my goodness, I thought for the last 20 years or so they were running uphill out there.

"So I'm not disappointed to see it happen," Delp added. "I thought that seven-furlong record would be the first one to go. I don't know about the other one, though. I will be disappointed if they ever, in my lifetime, break his mile and one-quarter record. They're going to have to get those NASCARs out there to break that one."

On Jan. 5, 1980, more than 46,000 turned out to witness Spectacular Bid's California debut in the Malibu Stakes for 4-year-olds. It was his first start since the previous Oct. 29, when Spectacular Bid defeated older runners in the Meadowlands Cup.

"I remember it like it was today," Delp said of the Malibu. "Just watch the race. If [Bill] Shoemaker had really whacked him and rode him to the finish line, he'd have set a world record that would be standing to this day."

During the winter of 1980, Dave Bernstein was stabled in the same Santa Anita backstretch neighborhood as Delp, giving him a front row seat to the Spectacular Bid show. In fact, Bernstein celebrated his 40th birthday the day after Bid won the Malibu.

"Spectacular Bid was just a horse of a different kind," Bernstein said Monday morning. "I loved to watch him run. He was one of the greatest of all time, and I'll always believe his Santa Anita Handicap is one of the greatest races of all time."

As for Unfurl the Flag, Bernstein has been high on the horse since he and his owners claimed him for $40,000 in August 2002 from breeder Marty Wygod. Considerable patience has been required.

"He's got the physical talent," Bernstein said. "The problem has been in his head. He's got that high-strung breeding, by Bertrando out of a Storm Cat mare, but potentially, he could be any kind."

Last Saturday's optional claimer afforded Unfurl the Flag a chance to strut his form of last Dec. 21 at Hollywood Park, when he beat another hot-blooded Cal-bred, Beau Soleil, by four lengths. This time he led from the start to win by 4 1/2 lengths, again under Mike Smith. Through the rain and cloudy darkness, an otherworldly 1:20.11 glowed from the tote board.

"The track was a tad hard, wouldn't you think?" Bernstein said, almost apologetic. "Any time the track is anything other than normal, it makes you worry. A lot of things can happen, and only one of them is good."

Unfurl the Flag emerged from his career best a tired horse, but none the worse for wear. And while Bernstein is not sure what lies ahead, any comparisons to Spectacular Bid will be firmly discouraged.

"Spectacular Bid was just a horse of a different kind," Bernstein said. "I will tell you, though, that Mike said if he'd asked our horse the other day he would have broken the track record easily."

Oh, brother. Don't let Buddy hear that.