02/26/2007 1:00AM

Storied race hardly lives up to its name

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Charles Pravata/Horsephotos
Lava Man carries top weight of 124 pounds in the Santa Anita Handicap.

ARCADIA, Calif. - A quarter of a century sounds like an awfully long stretch of time, especially the most recent quarter of a century, jam-packed as it has been with technological leaps and bounds and brimming with cultural revolutions.

For instance, in 1982 the Santa Anita Handicap was still what could be fairly referred to as a "handicap," with all the associated historical implications, not to mention a 17-pound spread between the top and the bottom. Five horses carried more than 120 pounds. Defending champion John Henry carried 130. Providential II, winner of the 1981 Washington D.C. International, carried 127. The French horse Perrault, making his first start on dirt, carried 126. Valets were careful when they lifted the saddles.

With more than 70,000 in the stands, the race came down to a furious duel between John Henry, under Bill Shoemaker, and Perrault, with Laffit Pincay. Perrault won by a nose, but he drifted out enough for the stewards to justify a disqualification. The crowd went wild.

Now compare the weights of 1982 to the leading names pointing for Saturday's 70th running of the $1omillion Santa Anita Handicap. Lava Man, the defending champ, is assigned 124 pounds. Strub Stakes winner Arson Squad carries 117 pounds, while San Antonio Handicap winner Molengao carries 116.

"I guess they got it right," said Doug O'Neill, trainer of Lava Man, which of course means they got it wrong. No racing secretary worth his stall space wants to hear compliments on weight assignments from trainers, lest they be haunted for the remainder of their days by the ghost of Walter Vosburgh.

Unfortunately, there no longer exists any real context for racing secretaries to construct handicap weights, especially for a race as significant as the Santa Anita Handicap.

The last time Lava Man competed in a handicap was the Goodwood at Santa Anita last Oct. 7. He carried 126 pounds.

Molengao, Ball Four (116) and El Roblar (114) come out of the San Antonio Handicap, a traditional Santa Anita Handicap prep, in which they carried 115, 117, and 115, respectively, and finished one-two-three. None of those three has ever competed against Lava Man.

San Fernando Stakes winner Awesome Gem has never been weighted in a handicap. Boboman has never raced on dirt and was assigned a weight only once in his life. And the last time Sunshine Millions Classic winner McCann's Mojave was weighted in a graded handicap was December of 2005.

It was suggested in this space some years ago that the Handicap portion of the Santa Anita Handicap had outlived its usefulness. It was pointed out that its status would not be damaged by making it a weight-for-age event, or weighted on allowances based on major purse winnings. This would save the promoters of the race from such embarrassments as the 2004 running, when the topweight carried 119, or 2003, when none of the 14 runners carried more than 118 pounds, and would also spare horsemen from jockey overweights that render many handicaps meaningless.

Of course, it's not as simple as that. A hundred years ago, Coca-Cola was able to take the cocaine out of its soft drink and still retain valuable product recognition, mostly because the term "addictive" was not part of the brand name. In the case of the Santa Anita Handicap, however, it will not be possible to change the weight structure and retain the name - although there are marketing experts who would try.

Anyway, a name change is not necessarily a bad thing, since the modern connotation of the word "handicap" hardly suggests valiant steeds and skillful jockeys competing at the pinnacle of a sporting event. A Santa Anita exec wondered if the race could be weight-for-age and officially christened with its advertising nickname - the Big 'Cap - which was hatched in the early 1970's. Fine, but then where does "Cap" come from? Capsize? Capillary? Capitulation? Or maybe just give away hats on Big 'Cap day and hope nobody asks.

A few years ago, this reporter offered to lead the charge in changing the name of the Santa Anita Handicap to The Big One. Never mind that the idea was blatantly poached from the title of a Michael Moore documentary. If you are going to steal, steal from the funniest.

Alas, The Big One fell on deaf ears. But maybe time is ripe to revisit the issue. Remove the arbitrary, subjective elements. Neutralize the whining. Make the weights cut-and-dried, based on age or first-place money won, which seems to work just fine in just about every other major racing nation. Then take your pick from among any number of contenders for a new name. Call it the Santa Anita Classic. Call it the Premio de Santa Anita. Call it The Best of the West and then let someone argue the point.

But let's not fuss much longer with the idea of a handicap, unless the rest of racing is committed to do the same, which is not likely, if the weight Invasor carried in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 3 is any indication. The reigning Horse of the Year packed all of 123, which renders any criticism of Lava Man's 124 pretty much moot.

"If we're get lucky enough and win Santa Anita Handicap again," Doug O'Neill said, "we'll be totally okay with a little asterisk compared to what John Henry carried."

At this point, that's as much as diehard handicap fans can expect.