03/28/2003 1:00AM

A push to change Big Cap

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The board of directors of the Thoroughbred Owners of California wants Santa Anita to change the conditions of the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap in 2004 from a handicap to a race with equal weights.

The proposal has been made in the past by the TOC and met with resistance from Santa Anita officials. Both sides are unlikely to change their views before this summer when discussions are held on the agreement that determines purse distribution and the stakes schedule for the 2003-04 winter/spring meeting.

The TOC's most recent argument was put forth in an article that will appear in an upcoming issue of the organization's quarterly newsletter.

In the article, TOC president John Van de Kamp cites the need for a "level playing field" and writes "Horse racing is the only major sport today where at the top level we penalize the best."

While the recommendation has the support of several prominent trainers, Santa Anita president Jack Liebau and director of racing Mike Harlow are opposed to the change.

"I do respect the view of the TOC, but I think at this time they're wrong," Liebau said. "I think the Santa Anita Handicap has a great tradition that should be continued."

Harlow cited field sizes in recent years as an indication that the race can be successful as a handicap. Although there were only six starters this year, the race drew 12 starters in 2001 (including reigning Horse of the Year Tiznow) and 14 starters in 2002.

"I like to be able to offer a few pounds to some of the other competitors to entice them to run," Harlow said. "I feel that's important with so many choices of races."

Weight-for-age and equal weights conditions are frequently used in the second half of the year for championship races that match 3-year-olds against older horses. If the TOC proposal is adopted, the Santa Anita Handicap would be run with equal weights since the race is run for 4-year-olds and up.

The TOC has a voice in the debate. The organization is the state's official representative for horsemen and negotiates purse contracts on behalf of owners.

Discussions on purses and the stakes schedule typically start in late summer, Harlow said. Any disagreements usually result in a flurry of memos and an occasional meeting, he said.

"This is the first time they've let me know their intention this far in advance," Harlow said of the TOC.

The conditions of the Santa Anita Handicap have been widely debated this year after Medaglia d'Oro, the winner of the San Antonio Handicap in February, passed the race on March 1 after trainer Bobby Frankel said he was unhappy with the colt's 124-pound weight assignment.

The Frankel-trained Milwaukee Brew won the Santa Anita Handicap under 119 pounds, beating Congaree (124 pounds) by a head.

The Santa Anita Handicap has offered a purse of at least $100,000 since it was inaugurated in 1935 and became the first $1 million handicap in 1986.

Run over 1 1/4 miles, the race is often referred to as the Big Cap. If a change in conditions is made, the race would probably need a new name and nickname.

Three major trainers - Bob Baffert, Frankel, and Richard Mandella - support a change to equal weights and say they would like to see other major races, primarily Grade 1 stakes, no longer run as handicaps throughout the circuit. The three trainers accounted for the first four finishers in this month's Big Cap.

"In Grade 1 races, they should do without handicaps," said Frankel. "They are championship races."

Baffert said he did not think that field sizes would suffer if the handicap condition is discontinued because the prize money is too enticing.

"If you have the horse, you want to take a shot for $1 million," he said.

Mandella agrees that handicaps in Grade 1 races should be eliminated, adding that "in Grade 2 and Grade 3's, there is a place for handicaps."

Many of the top races run in Southern California are handicaps. In 2002, there were 29 races worth $250,000 or more run in Southern California for 3-year-olds and up that were not restricted to statebreds.

Of those, only eight were run as weight-for-age, at equal weights, or under allowance conditions. The rest were handicaps.

Earlier this year, Hollywood Park approached the TOC about making the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup in July a handicap and discontinuing the weight-for-age conditions that have been in place since 1997. Prior to that, the Gold Cup was run as a handicap. The TOC did not approve the request, Van de Kamp said.