06/25/2004 12:00AM

Pass the torch over to racing

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NEW YORK - When the world's greatest athletes gather in Athens this summer for the Olympics, they will be competing for medals and glory in such ancient and compelling sports as synchronized swimming, table tennis, and tae kwon do. So why not horse racing?

With all due respect to eventing, dressage, and show jumping, racing is the best and purest form of equestrian competition, and adding an international horse race to the Games would be more in keeping with Olympic tradition than almost any event on the schedule.

According to the fifth-century B.C. Greek philosopher Hippian of Elis, racing was among the earliest Olympic events. Four-horse chariot races joined foot races, the pentathlon, boxing, and wrestling in 680 B.C. to make up the 25th Olympiad. Free-running horses made their debut 32 years later, in the 33rd Olympiad of 648 B.C. The sport was confined to the wealthy, with each entrant owning his own horse, but reportedly was a popular attraction. Still, when the Olympics resumed in 1896 after a 2,290-year hiatus, racing was left off the roster.

If there's room for beach volleyball and mountain-bike cycling, which I swear are actual Olympic events, there's room for a horse race.

Or two. Since the United States would be 1-10 in the Olympics winter book for any dirt race, there should probably also be a grass race to give the rest of the globe a chance. How about mirroring the Breeders' Cup Turf and Classic and having a 1 1/4-mile dirt race and a 1 1/2-mile grass race? We can even call them 2,000 meters and 2,400 meters if that makes everyone feel more internationally warm and fuzzy.

Having just two races may unfairly exclude distaffers and sprinters from a chance at a gold medal, but we have to start somewhere. Perhaps by the 2084 Games in New Atlantis (formerly Los Angeles), we'll be up to 15 Olympic races, including a 5 1/2-furlong turf sprint for 3-year-old fillies.

For now, each country would get to nominate two horses and two jockeys for each event. There could be a qualifying race opening day of the Games, with the top finisher or two from each heat advancing to the finals 18 days later.

Since the Olympics are technically for human athletes rather than animals, we'd have to pretend it was all about the jockeys, but that could still work out pretty well. Riders could represent their home countries regardless of where they currently ride, just the way guys from the Sacramento Kings play for Serbia or Yugoslavia in Olympic basketball. Edgar Prado could wear the colors (a new line of flag-based silks would have to be designed) of Peru, and Jose Santos could ride the good thing from Chile.

Granted, there are some logistical problems. Training for the Olympics and shipping to Athens or Beijing (2008) smack in the middle of Saratoga and Del Mar blows a big hole in a horse's schedule. Also, we'd be asking the best horse in the country to forego some big paydays for a race with no purse. Maybe we could just cut the pots for the Whitney, Pacific Classic, and Arlington Million in half during Olympic years and hand the money to our representatives, another ancient Olympic tradition.

There would still be time to make the Breeders' Cup, and just imagine the rematch possibilities. A horse who takes a tough beat in the Olympics, perhaps when jostled at the start by a 100-1 shot from Trinidad and Tobago, returns to avenge his defeat for the gold medal in the Classic. After all the worldwide television exposure from the Olympics, Breeders' Cup ratings would soar.

What about betting? The International Olympic Committee is unlikely to conduct or sanction parimutuel wagering, but the local authorities could be the hub for a massive worldwide betting pool. Even a 10-percent takeout could probably bail out the host city for the massive debt usually incurred in staging the Games. A deal would have to be cut with harness-racing interests, which will argue that since the original Olympic races involved chariots, any restoration of racing to the Games should involve sulkies and two-minute miles. An arrangement to share the nighttime Olympics simulcast revenue should appease them.

Who would we send this year? Pleasantly Perfect and Southern Image are the obvious choices for the dirt race (it's too much for a 3-year-old, even Smarty Jones, after the rigors of the Triple Crown). We'd be a longshot with Meteor Storm and Sabiango if either qualified for the finals of the 2,400-meter turf race, but stranger things have happened - and the movie of "Miracle on Grass" could be a blockbuster.