07/07/2004 12:00AM

Tarnished gold will shine again

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It is useless to lament the Hollywood Gold Cup that might have been. But let's do it anyway.

As the 2004 season dawned, it was reasonable to expect that Saturday's Gold Cup, offering $750,000 at 1 1/4 miles on a mild summer day, might have included at least a sprinkling of names from a list that included Pleasantly Perfect, Medaglia d'Oro, Candy Ride, Funny Cide, Dynever, Perfect Drift, Peace Rules, and perhaps even the defending champ, Congaree.

The emergence of Southern Image as an older star added more depth to the potential line-up, and there was even a decent layer of supporting players in the mix, led by horses such as Strub Stakes winner Domestic Dispute and the revitalized Midwesterner Even the Score.

Him we got. But the rest? Poof! Gone, shelved, hurt, retired, resting, bored, or otherwise occupied over the last mad month of major stakes gluttony for the division. Consider the opportunities for the same group of horses just during the past 30 days:

* June 12, $350,000 Brooklyn Handicap, 1 1/8 miles, Belmont Park.

* June 12, $750,000 Stephen Foster Handicap, 1 1/8 miles, Churchill Downs.

* June 12, $250,000 Californian, 1 1/8 miles, Hollywood Park.

* June 19, $500,000 Massachusetts Handicap, 1 1/8 miles, Suffolk Downs.

* July 3, $500,000 Suburban Handicap, 1 1/4 miles, Belmont Park.

* July 3, $250,000 Cornhusker Handicap, 1 1/8 miles, Prairie Meadows.

If such an embarrassment of riches is intended to be a formula for national parity, congratulations. It worked. Thankfully, there have been a few highly entertaining races among that list, breathing life into working class heroes like Offlee Wild and Colonial Colony. It's a big tent.

Anyway, it might have been unreasonable to expect that much from the Gold Cup. In this modern world, a purse of three-quarters of a million barely raises an eyebrow. Still, there is hope. Even the Score, after winning the Mervin LeRoy and the Californian with increasing authority, could win again Saturday and go forth to leave a trail of quality, just as Southern Image reappeared this year to fulfill his original promise.

So take heart. The Hollywood Gold Cup has survived quiet runnings in the past - 1994, for example, when the modest gelding Slew of Damascus, the pride of Tennessee, took advantage of a leaky field to rule as king for a day. The earth turned, and the next five runnings were won by Cigar, Siphon, Gentlemen, Skip Away, and Real Quiet, thus ending the millennium with a golden bang.

And for those who need a true infusion of quality from the past - if only to help survive the present - this is a good time to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Affirmed's victory in the 1979 Hollywood Gold Cup. There was history in the air.

Going into the race, run June 24, Affirmed was on the verge of breaking Kelso's record for all-time earnings. Don't laugh, but in those days it was a big deal, and the Kelso mark of $1,977,896 had stood since the old boy retired in early 1966.

It is worth noting that Kelso never won more than $90,000 in a single race, and he did that only once. His record held firm in the face of such Hall of Famers as Buckpasser, Dr. Fager, Damascus, and finally, Forego, who came within $40,000 of the mark before his ankles finally surrendered in 1978.

Affirmed, at age 4, was at the peak of his powers for the Gold Cup. But he had to be. He carried 132 pounds, giving 12 pounds to Sirlad, an Italian champion who'd been converted smoothly to dirt for Charlie Whittingham, and 19 pounds to Text, the tough little bookmark of a chestnut who had finished second to Exceller in the Gold Cup the year before.

There were 48,884 at Hollywood Park that day. As reported by the late racing writer Kent Hollingsworth, this is what they saw:

"The majestic Affirmed was cheered in his calmness in the paddock, cheered in his confidence in the post parade, then cheered in his ferocity in battle," Hollingsworth wrote. "Again, he set all the pace, but despite swift fractions he did not slip away to daylight. Sirlad was always there, always poised, always a threat, and Text was right behind. Turning for home, Text made such a move that veteran rider Bill Shoemaker thought he might really win it, and Sirlad was still running on strongly.

"The battle waged on furiously, each horse shunning defeat, but it was Affirmed by a neck, then Affirmed by a half-length. At the finish, it was Affirmed by three-quarters of a length. The time - he owned all the pace - was 1:58 2/5, only one-fifth of a second slower than the world record."

Affirmed passed Kelso on the money list, a transitory achievement, as it turned out. But no one who saw it ever forgot that race. Darrel McHargue, now serving as a California steward, dismounted from Sirlad that day and put words to the undeniable conclusion.

"If you look him in the eye, like I did, or come from out of it, you won't beat him," McHargue said. "My horse ran real big, but look what happened when it counted. There is no way any horse is going to beat Affirmed."