11/14/2008 12:00AM

Taking it to two extremes

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NEW YORK - On the first two Sundays of December, a pair of statebred stars will make the final starts of their remarkable 2008 campaigns in vastly different races. In one case a big fish will stay in her own small pond, while the other will jump into the deepest part of the ocean.

On Dec. 14, Peppers Pride, the 5-year-old mare who has won all 18 of her starts while racing only against fellow New Mexico-bred fillies and mares, is expected to conclude her career against that same group in the $125,000 New Mexico Racing Commission Handicap at Sunland Park. A week earlier, Tin Cup Chalice, the New York-bred 3-year-old who is just a neck short of being undefeated in nine career starts, will represent the United States in the $2.8 million Japan Cup Dirt at Hanshin Racecourse in Tokyo.

Peppers Pride has a national following and a loyal fan base that is lobbying to give her a special Eclipse Award, and she will be something like 1-5 to win her 19th in a row, while the fair odds on Tin Cup Chalice in Japan are more like 100-1. Yet one could argue that Tin Cup Chalice is making a far more sporting bid than the undefeated mare.

Peppers Pride is the subject of numerous heated message-board debates among racing fans. The argument is pretty much between those who say her winning streak is a spectacular and historic achievement and those who argue she has been coddled by running against the same small group of unaccomplished rivals and is not even one of the five best racemares in the country. In fact, both positions probably are true. Going 18-0 at anything is rare and wonderful, and Peppers Pride set a modern American record when she won her 17th, technically surpassing the 16-race winning streaks of Cigar, Citation, Hallowed Dreams, and Mister Frisky.

That having been noted, however, her achievement is extremely limited by the low bar that keeps being set for her. Peppers Pride proves nothing but consistency by beating the same tiny section of the horse population in the same races at the same tracks. This is the way that racing is trending at a time when races restricted to statebreds are growing each year, funded by mandated purses and bonuses for the products of politically popular agricultural stimulus programs that too often reward mediocrity.

It's tempting to cast Peppers Pride as some sort of blue-collar outsider scorned by the snobby elites of the sport, but that's just folksy nonsense. She could have been sent two states over to California for any number of open and even graded stakes races where she would have been competitive and tested for true quality.

Remember Happy Ticket? After winning her first eight career starts in Louisiana in 2004 and 2005, her connections faced a similar choice: Keep her undefeated forever on home cooking, or see where she stood among the best fillies in the country. They took the latter route, and while her streak ended shortly thereafter when she ran second to Madcap Escapade in the Princess Rooney, she went on to win the Grade 1 Ballerina and place in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom, Beldame and Breeders' Cup Distaff, heights unavailable in Louisiana.

You can't knock the decision to aim lower with Peppers Pride in order to carve out an obscure piece of history, but once she won her 17th straight it would have been more sporting to look beyond the borders of the Land of Enchantment.

Giving her a special Eclipse Award for staying undefeated would amount to a reward for ducking real competition.

Maybe losing his eighth start, by a neck in an overnight stakes race at Belmont, was the best thing ever to happen to Tin Cup Chalice, a New York-bred son of the Damascus stallion Crusader Sword and a Spectacular Bid mare. Without an unblemished record to protect, his connections aimed higher in his next start and tried the open Grade 2 Indiana Derby, where he beat the once-mighty Pyro by a length at 9-1.

They're probably pushing their luck taking him to Japan off that race, but the 3-year-old gelding can get a nice long break after that adventure and be ready in plenty of time for the first stakes race on the Finger Lakes spring calendar.