08/26/2002 12:00AM

Three-year-old title up in air

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The race for both Horse of the Year and the 3-year-old championship has taken on a decidedly different look in the aftermath of this past weekend, when victories by Came Home and Medaglia d'Oro, and a loss by War Emblem, put all three on virtually equal footing two months before the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Medaglia d'Oro came out of the Travers Stakes with a foot bruise, but Came Home and War Emblem, and Travers runner-up Repent, were reported to have come out of their races in good condition. The Breeders' Cup Classic, run Oct. 26 at Arlington Park, is a year-end goal for each colt, though trainer Bob Baffert on Monday morning left open the possibility that War Emblem may get a freshening.

"Maybe he's peaked out on me, I don't know," Baffert said at Del Mar. "He's run a lot."

War Emblem had been the unquestioned leader of the 3-year-old division, following victories in the Illinois Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Haskell Invitational; among his beaten opponents in those races were Came Home, Medaglia d'Oro, and Repent. But when War Emblem lost to Came Home in Sunday's Pacific Classic at Del Mar, that enabled Came Home to even the score at one victory apiece in head-to-head competition against War Emblem, and Came Home now has beaten older horses, something Medaglia d'Oro and War Emblem have yet to accomplish.

Medaglia d'Oro lost the Kentucky Derby and Preakness to War Emblem, then finished in front of War Emblem in the Belmont Stakes. But with victories in Saturday's Travers Stakes and the Jim Dandy, Medaglia d'Oro is peaking as the major fall races loom.

Came Home got a Beyer Speed Figure of 116 for the Pacific Classic. Medaglia d'Oro got a 113 for the Travers.

Came Home returned to trainer Paco Gonzalez's Hollywood Park barn on Sunday night, a few hours after recording his sixth victory in seven starts this year. He is scheduled to race twice more this year, then, according to part-owner John Toffan, likely will be retired to stud at Lane's End Farm in Versailles, Ky., which purchased a significant interest in Came Home one year ago.

Trudy McCaffery, another part-owner of Came Home, said the colt's most likely prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic would be the Oct. 6 Goodwood Handicap at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting.

"Yesterday's race opened a new dimension for us," McCaffery said, referring to that Came Home won for the first time in two starts at 1 1/4 miles. "Now he'll run in the Classic."

Baffert offered several reasons for War Emblem's loss. He laid most of the blame on War Emblem, saying the colt "didn't bring his 'A' game."

He also said a fast five-furlong workout five days before the race "probably took the starch out of him." But Baffert also said the presence of Bosque Redondo - Came Home's stablemate, who suffered career-ending injuries after helping to set a hot pace - compromised War Emblem's chances, as did War Emblem's pre-race antics in the starting gate.

War Emblem has a history of gate trouble. He stumbled at the start of the Belmont Stakes, and reared in the gate just before the start of the Haskell. On Sunday, he had to be reloaded twice. Both times, starter Gary Brinson came to the front of War Emblem's stall to supervise the colt's progress. Brinson then had to jog back to his position near the inner rail to press the button that dispatches the field.

"The starter overcompensated," Baffert said. "He should stay in his spot. He tried to big-dog it. He should stay at his perch. If he wants camera time, he should become a trainer."

Brinson said he was afraid War Emblem "would hook a foot over the door and hurt himself." He said he sent the field on its way as soon as War Emblem was loaded the third time because "the way he was acting, if he was in the gate much longer there was going to be a serious problem."

At Saratoga, the trainers of Medaglia d'Oro and Repent - Bobby Frankel and Ken McPeek - said a Travers rematch could be in the offing in the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park on Sept. 28, though neither was ready to commit to anything just yet.

Medaglia d'Oro came out of the race with a bruise to his left front foot, which was originally thought to be a grabbed quarter. Frankel said the bruise probably existed before the race and "it busted out" while Medaglia d'Oro ran over the sloppy Saratoga track.

"It's sort of like an abscess; he's got a dark foot there," Frankel said. "There was probably some blood laying under there and the race brought it out. It busts out in the softest part of the foot, which is the coronet band, and that's where most of the quarter cracks come. I don't think it affected the race at all. I don't know if he could have run any better if he didn't

have it."

Frankel said he would give Medaglia d'Oro a week off to recover from the bruise.

Frankel said the Jockey Club Gold Cup would be an attractive spot for Medaglia d'Oro because it would give him four weeks to the Breeders' Cup. A year ago, Frankel won the Jockey Club Gold Cup with Aptitude, but felt Aptitude may have regressed in the Breeders' Cup with only three weeks between races. Frankel said a decision on Medaglia d'Oro's next start would probably not be made until after he sees how Lido Palace runs in the Woodward at Belmont on Sept. 7.

McPeek said he would decide whether to run Repent once more before the Breeders' Cup Classic, or simply train him up to the race. Repent was coming off a 140-day layoff entering the Travers.

"My first instinct is to wait till the Classic, but it depends on how he's doing," McPeek said.

- additional reporting by David Grening