10/23/2002 11:00PM

Plenty to bet on, but little to root for

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Earlier this year, racing was celebrating champions named Johannesburg, Tempera, Tiznow, Sakhee, and Squirtle Squirt, all with promising campaigns ahead of them. Siphonic and Repent were the favorites for the Triple Crown. These and other stars young and old - Bella Bellucci, Caller One, Flute, Left Bank, Officer, Saarland, Spain, Street Cry, Val Royal, You - figured to be the sport's headliners in 2002 and the early favorites for Breeders' Cup XIX.

Don't bother looking for any of those 17 names in the entries at Arlington Park Saturday; not one of them has made it to this Breeders' Cup. Only two of last year's Eclipse Award winners, Banks Hill and Xtra Heat, are back, and Banks Hill is the only one of last year's Cup winners still in training.

Such is racing's weakness and its strength. It's hard to think of another professional sport that could lose its top 17 players in the course of a season, and just as difficult to imagine a game so resilient and renewable it can do so without really missing a beat. No one is complaining about a lack of quality, intrigue, or competitiveness in this year's fields, even without so many stars of such recent vintage.

Fragility and early retirement are recurring and dominant themes in the sport these days, but it's still hard to think of a topsy-turvier season than 2002. Where were some of the biggest names in this Breeders' Cup last January?

War Emblem, the 3-1 morning-line favorite in the $4 million Classic, was finishing fifth at 12-1 in the ungraded Lecomte Handicap at Fair Grounds Jan. 26 for trainer Bobby Springer. Medaglia d'Oro, 7-2 in the Classic, was a maiden with only a second-place finish to Spicey Marcloud at Turfway Park on his rŽsumŽ. Azeri, 6-5 in the $2 million Distaff, had yet to run in a stakes race though she looked good winning an $80,000 optional claimer at Santa Anita. Orientate, the solid favorite in the $1 million Sprint, was routing and running on grass because he was only the second-best sprinter in his own barn.

While this Cup is as good a betting card as many, it's an unenviable job to promote this year's event to the general public. The Breeders' Cup's slogan of "America vs. The World!" is rather unfortunate in the current political climate, the "world" appears to consist largely of the Aidan O'Brien stable, and the internationalism of the event does not seem to extend much past the usual dominance of the Europeans in the grass races. It's disappointing that Rock of Gibraltar is going in the Mile instead of the Classic, leaving only Hawk Wing - who is 1 for 5 this year - to represent The World in the day's biggest race.

For better or worse, that leaves War Emblem as the default headliner, though it's unclear he'll even be favored in the Classic and he would surprise no one by finishing closer to eighth than first. He's hard to get warm and fuzzy about in this spot because he will be gone in a blink, off to Japan for a life at stud after this Classic. He was bred in Kentucky and began his career in Chicago, but he races for a Saudi Arabian estate and he's on his way to Hokkaido. So much for clear-cut nationalist rooting.

This Classic gets weirder the longer you look at it. It's the first time that three 3-year-olds are the three morning-line favorites, and they share something even more unusual: War Emblem, Medaglia d'Oro, and Came Home are all unraced since August, and no horse has ever won a Classic off that long a layoff. It's as if their trainers saw Farda Amiga win the Alabama off a long layoff and Repent almost win the Travers off a long layoff and suddenly decided to throw a lifetime of conventional training wisdom out the window.

How can you trust any of these colts? You can't. Robert Grenetz, the former track security guard (he was in charge of safeguarding CBS's winner's circle cameras the day of Secretariat's Belmont) who won DRF's drawing for $10,000 to play the Ultra Pick Six, has some strong opinions on the card. But he's structuring a ticket that will leave him alive to 10 of the 12 horses in the Classic. He's not even sure that the other two can't win but he figures that if he gets that far, he can always hedge by betting those excluded 50-1 shots out of his own pocket.

My own Classic selection, Evening Attire, seems an appropriate one in this Twilight Zone season. He wasn't in last year's Cup and scored his first stakes victory four days after it - as a 65-1 shot beating Street Cry in the Discovery Handicap at Aqueduct. That began a 6-for-9 streak culminating with a victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup last month. Besides the fact that he's a nice-looking gray and races for likeable people, the best thing about him is that he's a gelding, so there's actually a chance you can root for him again after Saturday, and maybe even in next year's Classic. These days, and especially this year, that's a lot.