12/29/2003 12:00AM

Up in smoke: Worst of 2003


ARCADIA, Calif. - Charlie Whittingham steered clear of New Year's Eve. He called it "amateur night," and he was right. Heavy drinking, like plutonium, should only be handled by experts.

Still, Whittingham would hardly endorse the actions of the Saudi Arabian Authority for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Better known as the "morality police" for their strict enforcement of conservative Muslim law, the APVPV will be throwing cold water on any New Year's Eve celebrations by raiding shops that sell such subversive items as flowers and candles.

A tad harsh, but they have a point. The final day of the calendar year should be a time of reflection, rather than frivolous indulgence. (There's opening day at Del Mar for that.) Like it or not, we live by the dictates of a 12-month reality. That's a long time to get things right, or wrong. So a few minutes to chew on the consequences is hardly inappropriate.

Then, as the new year dawns, a page is turned and the palate cleansed. In Brazil, revelers wear white for good luck. In Spain, a grape is eaten for each toll of the New Year's midnight hour. In Turkey, great feasts are served, and the main course on New Year's Day is - don't be shocked - turkey.

The earliest celebrations trace to ancient Babylon - better known as modern-day Iraq - where the new year was marked with an 11-day festival highlighted by a ceremonial banishment of the king. He was stripped naked and sent packing, leaving his subjects to do as they pleased. Upon the king's return, in a grand procession, everyone resumed proper behavior, if they knew what was good for them.

Colombia gets this reporter's vote for best New Year's Eve tradition, affectionately referred to as "the burning of Mr. Old Year." Families prepare an effigy stuffed with flammable material, fireworks, and objects representing sadness and bad memories. The effigy is dressed in dad's old clothes, strung up, and then, at the stoke of midnight, set ablaze. Presto! Bad memories go up in smoke.

So, before pressing on with the Thoroughbred adventure of 2004, let's do a controlled burn of Mr. Old Year in American horse racing. Certainly, there are a few pieces of baggage from 2003 that can be left behind in a charred heap, without too much regret.

My personal Mr. Old Year will be crammed full of losing mutuel tickets (and you wondered why Peace Rules was favored in the Breeders' Cup Mile), shredded X-rays (courtesy of my wife, the jockey), and invitations to a hundred exclusive "Seabiscuit" screenings. More discerning fans may choose to select from the following:

* It will be hard to forget how reporters for the Miami Herald dragged the best story of the year through the mud with the most sensational non-story of the decade. But we should try.

Falsely accusing Jose Santos of using a machine on Funny Cide to win the Derby was tantamount to suggesting that Secretariat had a head start. The photographic "evidence" was fuzzy and misinterpreted. The initial reactions from the paper were defensive, as if the integrity of journalism itself was at stake. An eventual apology received about one-millionth of the attention lavished upon the original accusations.

Recommendation: Recycle newspapers - always the best revenge - but steer clear of the Sunday, May 2, 2004, edition of the Miami Herald, just in case it happens again.

* Weep no more over early retirements. It was ever thus. Those starry-eyed fans who worshipped at the altar of Mineshaft and Empire Maker during 2003 should have known there would be only a brief time in the arena, based on preordained economic forces.

Suggested remedy: Burn a page out of the 2004 stallion directory. Any page. And from now on, curb your enthusiasm. Root loudest for geldings like Funny Cide, Perfect Drift, and Buddy Gil, or for the less marketably bred, like Congaree and Candy Ride. And don't sink a second of emotional capital into a colt like Lion Heart, because he's already got one foot in the breeding shed.

* Get over "Seabiscuit." The memory may linger, but its impact on the business of racing has been negligible. True, Santa Anita Park is sensibly milking the legend for all it is worth - the track offers entertaining "Seabiscuit" tours of its stables and grounds - but beyond that, the impact of the film has been fleeting. The last gasp of mass exposure will be any film clips displayed at the Golden Globes and the Oscars, just before "Mystic River" mops up.

The cure for "Seabiscuit" withdrawal? With any luck, 2004 will be the year of "Hidalgo," the story of legendary dispatch rider Frank Hopkins and his 3,000-mile endurance race across the deserts of Arabia. "Hidalgo" has the potential to embed horses in the hearts and heads of audiences like no movie since "The Black Stallion." It opens in early March, and for the record, Hidalgo is the name of the redoubtable mustang who does most of the heavy lifting.