06/08/2004 11:00PM

Tinkering with tradition

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Hollywood Park will do its share to maintain the Big Mo generated by Smarty Jones this Saturday when the track presents three of its most important events - the Oaks, the Californian, and the Whittingham - each of them brimming with rich tradition. Sort of.

Tradition has been taking a beating lately, thanks to a pair of celebrated icons who have very little say in the matter. Their names are being invoked to rip great holes in some very fundamental fabric.

The death of Ronald Reagan has renewed the clamor to adorn both the dime and the ten-dollar bill with his image. On the 10-spot, he would bump Alexander Hamilton, a founding father but a lousy shot. On the coin, Reagan would replace the president who led America out of the Great Depression and through World War II.

"Roosevelt is long dead, however," wrote historian Jonathan Turley, who recommends a whoa approach to such changes. "And what has he done for us lately?"

The defeat of Smarty Jones in the Belmont has given rise once again to a bitter cry for major alterations to the seemingly unwinnable Triple Crown. Why promise the players and the public something that is impossible to attain? Might as well go after the Ark of the Covenant, the Golden Fleece, and the Holy Grail, all within a five-week span.

Pity poor Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal. An exemplary columnist and otherwise rational guy, Forde hit a wall after this Belmont and surrendered to the siren call of Wayne Lukas, among others, whose theories on fine-tuning the Triple Crown dates and distances hold about as much water as supply-side economics.

"Optimism is nice, but why should next year be any different?" Forde protested. "The now-annual anticlimax in New York has gotten old. . . . There's only so many times you can expect casual racing fans to buy into the Triple Crown hype before they're turned off by this 26-year exercise in futility. Sooner or later - and I predict sooner - they're going to find something else to watch."

Then there is Nick Zito, who had figured out every conceivable way to lose the Belmont Stakes before Birdstone finally got the job done last Saturday.

"Leave it alone," Zito said of proposed Triple Crown tampering. "It's the tradition that makes it great."

If tradition is defined as simple longevity, then certainly the Hollywood Oaks and the Californian qualify. The Oaks has been run continuously since 1946 - when Honeymoon made it one of her five victories during that memorable meet - while a race called the Californian has appeared on every Hollywood stakes calendar since 1954, when Imbros beat Derby winner Determine in a battle of stablemates.

The Oaks, however, has been contested at four different distances, ranging from seven to nine furlongs, and it was most recently dumbed down to 1 1/16 miles in 2002. Seems breeders just don't produce those 1 1/8-mile fillies like they used to.

The Oaks also has a sponsor, namely the Breeders' Cup, whose contribution of $50,000 toward the total purse of $175,000 obliges the racetrack to give it equal billing. Hence the mouthful: Hollywood Breeders' Cup Oaks, which will never be seen in a headline.

For 26 remarkable years at 1 1/16 miles, the Californian was the mid-distance jewel in the West Coast collection of events for mature horses (although Swaps was good enough to win the 1955 version at the age of 3).

Then politics intervened, and since 1980 the Californian has been basically a management plaything.

In 1980, the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap was created at 1 1/16 miles to give Spectacular Bid an additional local start before heading East. The subsequent Californian was lengthened to nine furlongs. Bid won them both.

By 1985, the main track itself had gone to a nine-furlong circumference by stretching the straightaways. As a result, the Californian was tried twice at a mile, with mixed reviews. The winners were Greinton and Precisionist, both a credit to the race. But the proximity of Century Boulevard to the one-mile chute required an auxiliary finish line that sat in a no-man's land at the end of the traditional grandstand. Eyewitnesses to either finish are rare.

In 1987, the mile idea mercifully died and the Californian became a two-turn, 1 1/8-mile race with a short run to the first turn, where it remains, at least through Saturday.

As for the Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap, the third and richest of Hollywood's triple-header, the grass race has since 1999 been a tribute to the California's only native-born Hall of Fame trainer. Whittingham died on April 20 of that year.

The race itself traces to the 1 1/2-mile Hollywood Invitational Turf Handicap, first run in 1969, and then the 1 1/4-mile Hollywood Turf Handicap, when they apparently ran out of both invitations and stamina. There was also the one year of sponsorship by Ford Pinto, in 1971, just before the little cars started to blow up.

So much for tradition. Nothing is sacred, although the Triple Crown ought to be. But as long as we're on the subject, how about Whittingham's face on the twenty?