02/26/2003 12:00AM

There's got to be a better way

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Alert the State Department. Stand down the troops.

Peace must be at hand. Why else would Bobby Frankel turn his back on a million-dollar race in his own backyard to make plans for his own private invasion of the turbulent Middle East?

Frankel has respectfully declined the opportunity to run Medaglia d'Oro in the Santa Anita Handicap on Saturday. Coming off a dazzler in the Strub Stakes, possessing speed, proven stamina, and with Jerry Bailey fully committed to ride, the big colt looked very tough to beat.

But Frankel says they dialed the wrong number when the racing office gave Medaglia d'Oro 124 pounds. That is the same as San Antonio Handicap winner Congaree, and five more than defending Santa Anita Handicap champ Milwaukee Brew, from whom Medaglia d'Oro received five pounds at weight-for-age races when they finished side by side behind Volponi in the Breeders' Cup Classic last fall. Frankel did the math - a whole lot of math - and ended up scratching both his head and his horse.

"Believe me, I wanted to run in this race," Frankel said Wednesday morning, the day before entries were due for the Handicap. "If somebody doesn't pull these people up, the way they do things, they'll never learn. Starting off in March, putting these weights on these horses . . . where do you go from there? What is he carrying by the time he gets to the Whitney - 128?"

Trainers complaining about handicap weights is a time-honored tradition. Something is wrong when they don't. According to Frankel, a package of 122 pounds would have put Medaglia d'Oro in the gate on Saturday, which doesn't make 124 sound like a big deal until you try to carry those two extra pounds a mile and a quarter at 35 m.p.h. under intensely competitive conditions.

Try explaining that to innocent racing fans, though, who will be deprived of a rare early-season matchup between the two horses perceived as the best in their division. Congaree and Medaglia d'Oro may meet somewhere down the road. But this one was coming up gangbusters, with both runners in robust form.

If nothing else, Frankel's decision should require racing's leadership to re-examine the efficacy of the handicap event at the top of the game. America remains the only racing nation on earth that requires its best horses to carry more weight in many of its best races, with that weight arbitrarily assigned.

"In a perfect world," said Hollywood Park racing secretary Martin Panza, "all graded races would be weight-for-age and medication free. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world."

With the exception of the Dubai World Cup, a $6 million roll of the dice 8,000 miles from his Hollywood Park stall, Medaglia d'Oro and his fellow 4-year-olds and up must negotiate a sea of handicaps in the coming months if they want to earn their keep.

"The weight-for-age races I'd want to run in don't come along until later on," Frankel said. "The first one, I think, is the Hollywood Gold Cup."

For now. Even the Gold Cup - a weight-for-age race since 1997 - is poised to return to the handicap fold. Six years of shrinking fields (including two four-horse productions) have soured track management on the weight-for-age experiment. A letter from the North American Graded Stakes Committee, warning that the legendary Gold Cup was in jeopardy of a downgrade, added insult to artistic injury. Panza sees no alternative.

"The thought was that Grade 1 races need to be weight-for-age, and that the big horses will come to the races that are weight-for-age, because you don't penalize the stars.

"Well, that didn't happen. And every major race for the division surrounding the Gold Cup is a handicap. A guy will look at the Gold Cup and figure the best he can finish is fourth at level weights. When they can go somewhere else and be favored for a big purse, you can't blame them."

Without a doubt, the distribution process of good older horses has gone completely haywire. One look at the national stakes picture for the afternoon of Saturday, June 14, is enough to wonder who's minding the store. On that single day, there are four major races for the same group of horses - the $250,000 Brooklyn Handicap at Belmont Park, the $500,000 Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs, the $750,000 Steven Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs, and the $400,000 Californian, a Hollywood race based on money won.

"Congratulations," said Panza. "You'll get four small fields."

Weight-for-age races will only work if there are no handicap races around them acting as counter-leverage. But if the tradition of handicaps is going to be maintained, there needs to be more sanity in the scheduling, and there definitely needs to be a national board of handicappers that assign weights on a national basis. No more playing one track against another to shave a few pounds.

In the meantime, Frankel is proceeding with his preparations for Dubai, holding one finger to the wind of world politics.

"I'm a firm believer that some things are meant to be, so I train horses like I live - by the seat of my pants," he said. "I go where that takes me."

Such intuitive style works great for Frankel, who must react to the needs of living creatures. The sport, on the other hand, is missing a firm, predictable framework upon which to hang the support of its fans and players. Time for a change.