11/17/2004 1:00AM

A phony can't be champion


PHILADELPHIA - When exactly did only good races start counting? Does anybody actually scrutinize the overall records of horses any more? Does consistency matter? Are bad races irrelevant?

As we head into the voting season (I am trying to forget that other election), it seems many of the voters only focus on the positive. I am here to make sure the negative has a voice.

Wilko? I mean, really. Wilko?

When I saw that Wilko has now entered the discussion for 2-year-old-champion, I just could not take it any more. Who cares if the horse won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile? He lost eight of 10 races before that. When you win fewer than 25 percent of your races, you are eliminated. End of discussion. Gone.

What if Wilko wins the Hollywood Futurity? I don't care. And neither should anybody else.

This is all sort of like the Birdstone discussion before the Breeders' Cup. What if this? What if that? Last I checked, Birdstone could not be found in the Lane's End or the Kentucky Derby. As far as I could tell, his only championship-level performance all year was in the Travers. No need to review the Belmont again. If people don't understand what happened in that race by now, they never will.

Being named 2-year-old champion these days is obviously no precursor to 3-year-old glory. But it still matters, especially to those people who happen to own the champion.

Why is Afleet Alex not in the discussion for 2-year-old champion? He was the only horse that ran in all the right races and ran consistently well. Winning is the object, but so is competing.

He won his maiden by 11 1/4 lengths. He won an allowance by 12 lengths. He won the Sanford by 5 1/2. He won the Hopeful at the wire after looking hopeless at the eighth pole. He was second in the Champagne when Proud Accolade got first run on him. He was second in the Juvenile when Jeremy Rose delivered the worst Cup ride this side of Jamie Spencer.

Should circumstances of a defeat matter? That is for the voters to decide, but any review of Afleet Alex's Juvenile would show that the horse (or the rider) missed the break. It would show that the rider took the horse five wide into the backstretch. It would show that the jockey rode around the turn like the finish line was at the quarter pole. And it would show a three-quarter-length loss to Wilko.

Rose is a nice young rider who proved not quite ready for prime time. With even a slightly better trip, Afleet Alex wins the Juvenile and we are not having this discussion.

Maybe, I am just getting grouchy at the end of a long year, but I often wonder if I am watching the same races and the same horses when I read some of what has been written.

One of my learned colleagues continues to compare Funny Cide and Smarty Jones. The only similarity is that both were off-the-beaten-path winners of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Funny Cide was great for two weeks. Other than those two weeks, he has been a nice horse who gives a solid effort most of the time. Nothing more, nothing less. This year, Funny Cide was extremely well managed and never was put into a really difficult spot until the Classic. And we all know how that turned out.

If people don't understand by now what they saw when Smarty Jones ran, they never will. If they didn't get the three runs in the Derby, the instant, effortless acceleration in the Preakness, or the 1 1/4-mile sprint in the Belmont, nothing I can say or do will change that.

Preconceived notions are hard held. Nobody wants to give up on what they believe to be true. Facts rarely get in the way of beliefs.

Believe this: Horses that lose often are not champions. Horses that show up and run only when everything goes their way are not champions.

And believe this. Champions don't need excuses, but, because of the nature of the sport with its inherent unpredictability, they sometimes get beat for reasons that have little to do with ability.