10/23/2003 11:00PM

Races worth remembering

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LOS ANGELES - Since you spend half your time in Los Angeles sitting in freeway traffic, your mind has the opportunity to wander. While waiting for the 20th year of Breeders' Cup races to be run at Santa Anita on Saturday, it was hard not to think back over the past two decades of Cup races and marvel at how many great individual races the series has produced. Here is one racegoer's highly subjective list of the very best of each division.

Distaff: One of the very few easy choices. In 1988 at Churchill Downs, Personal Ensign was making the final start of her career and, turning for home, she seemed sure to be beaten for the first time after 12 victories over three seasons. It wasn't just that she was eight lengths back over a sloppy track that was playing to speed; the leader was Winning Colors, who was looking strong and gliding over the track where she had won the Kentucky Derby.

Personal Ensign did not seem to be picking up the track at all, even as she angled out for the drive, but then started getting closer. Still 3 1/2 lengths back with just a furlong to go, she suddenly found another gear and was up in the very last stride to win by a nose and finish her career as an undefeated champion.

Runner-up: Hollywood Wildcat at Santa Anita in 1993, holding off defending champ Paseana in a brutal stretch duel even after Eddie Delahoussaye dropped the whip inside the sixteenth pole.

Juvenile Fillies: Fourteen years after Personal Ensign's Distaff, her granddaughter Storm Flag Flying was a heavy favorite at Arlington Park off three runaway victories in New York, but looked beaten when Composure stormed up outside of her in the stretch and put a head in front. Composure had all the momentum and 2-year-olds rarely rally back from the inside once caught. Yet Storm Flag Flying did exactly that, responding to the challenge with almost ferocious determination to prevail.

Runner-up: Open Mind leading a one-two-three finish of D. Wayne Lukas trainees across the wire in 1988 at Churchill.

Mile: Da Hoss had won the 1996 Mile at Woodbine, but when he returned for the 1998 Mile at Churchill he had made only one start in the previous two years. He emerged from the pack and took a short lead in midstretch, seemed beaten when Hawksley Hill collared him with 100 yards to go, but fought back at the rail and won by a head at 11-1.

Runners-up (tie): Miesque in 1988 and Lure in 1993, both winning the race for the second year in a row.

Sprint: Kona Gold finished third behind Reraise and Grand Slam in the 1998 Sprint and second to Artax at Gulfstream in 1999. Back for a third try at Churchill in 2000, the 6-year-old looked like he would be a runner-up again, but he surged to run down a loose Caller One and then held off Honest Lady while setting a track record of 1:07.77.

Runners-up (tie): Precisionist in 1985 at Aqueduct and Gulch in 1988 at Churchill. Both were cases of outstanding middle-distance horses proving their quality and getting belated recognition by dropping back to win at six furlongs.

Filly and Mare Turf: Only four to choose from, but Banks Hill's 5 1/2-length blowout at Belmont in 2001 was the kind of race where you just sat back and applauded a thoroughly dominant performance.

Juvenile: In 1991 at Churchill, some thought it folly to make a European who had never tried the dirt and drawn post 14 the favorite in a race where imports had never done well. Arazi, though, took everyone's breath away, rallying from 13th early to inhale the field after six furlongs and storm to a five-length victory.

Runner-up: Chief's Crown won the very first Breeders' Cup race, run in the 1984 Juvenile at Santa Anita, and his victory immediately certified the new races as true championship events.

Turf: After Lashkari and Pebbles won the first two Turfs in 1984 and 1985, Americans wondered if they'd ever win the race, especially in 1986, with Dancing Brave the 1-2 favorite off a reputation as one of Europe's best ever. The favorite failed to fire, though, and the American-based Manila and Theatrical hooked up for a thrilling stretch drive, with Manila prevailing to win by a neck and female grass champion Estrapade third.

Runner-up: Daylami, who had lost credibility on the world stage with a ninth in the Arc, redeeming himself and proving he was the best horse on the planet with a stunning 2 1/2-length victory at Gulfstream in 1999.

Classic: Let's do the runners-up first this time: Ferdinand in 1987 at Hollywood, holding off Alysheba in a duel of Derby winners; Cigar in 1995 at Belmont; and Skip Away in 1997 at Hollywood, capping off rugged campaigns with a dominant effort; Tiznow becoming the first two-time Classic winner with an unexpected late surge to hold off Sakhee by a nostril.

For sheer drama, though, it's still Sunday Silence and Easy Goer at Gulfstream in 1989, two of history's best 3-year-olds in a final showdown. No rivalry since has captured the public's imagination the way this one did, and fans of each colt still remember the race differently. For Easy Goer fans, it was yet another case of the better horse falling back too far and falling just short with a magnificent late charge. For Sunday Silence's backers, it was the final proof that their colt was just a little bit better.

Maybe the greatest races are the ones you can still argue about 14 years later.