01/03/2005 12:00AM

Too many good ones are gone

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NEW YORK - At this time last year, there was plenty of reason to be optimistic about the 2004 racing season. Although Mineshaft, Milwaukee Brew, Harlan's Holiday, Empire Maker, Take Charge Lady, and Aldebaran were some of the most prominent stakes horses to call it quits after the 2003 campaign, there was still a strong group of horses returning, particularly among older males. Medaglia d'Oro, Candy Ride, Congaree, Pleasantly Perfect, Perfect Drift, and Funny Cide were all coming back for another year. And, while a few of them performed only briefly, or failed to pan out, there was at least something to look forward to until the emergence of new stars, such as Ghostzapper and Smarty Jones.

It's difficult to be as optimistic at the dawn of the 2005 racing season. Yes, Ghostzapper, a leading contender for 2004 Horse of the Year, is returning for another campaign. So is Roses in May, runner-up to Ghostzapper in the Breeders' Cup Classic, although with the Dubai World Cup on his tentative schedule, it's fair to wonder what he might accomplish in the United States, since the majority of American horses who journey to that race are never the same afterward.

However, a plethora of important retirements threaten to render the handicap division perilously thin. Pleasantly Perfect, Medaglia d'Oro, and Peace Rules have all gone home. And, the retirements of Smarty Jones, Birdstone, Lion Heart, The Cliff's Edge, Read the Footnotes, and Tapit mean there are precious few worthy 3-year-olds from the class of 2004 to help fill the 2005 handicap ranks.

This isn't the only division that has taken a big hit in terms of depth of quality. With the retirements of Azeri, Sightseek, Storm Flag Flying, and Adoration, the older filly and mare division is considerably softer than it has been in a few years. Fortunately, there weren't as many critical retirements from the 3-year-old filly crop of 2004, so that will help the 2005 older female division some.

Azeri's place in history

Of all the retirements mentioned above, one begs immediately to put that horse's career in historical perspective. It isn't Smarty Jones. For all Smarty Jones may have done for the good of the game, and as good as he may have been, the fact is he operated on a national stage for only the five weeks of the Triple Crown. Smarty Jones, as Triple Crown-worthy as he may have been, just doesn't have a large enough body of work to compel one to compare him to past greats, and that comes from someone who was a fan of his.

No, the one who makes you want to do that, that makes you want to know if she was truly "one of the ones," is Azeri.

Azeri has the credentials to stake that claim. She was Horse of the Year in 2002, when she was also champion older female. She won another divisional title in 2003, and is odds-on to make it three straight with another divisional Eclipse Award for 2004. Not even some of the greats of all time have collected as much championship hardware. And, Azeri was a Grade 1 winner not merely in one locale, but in California, New York, Arkansas, and Illinois.

On the other hand, Azeri became the first female Horse of the Year that did not face, and beat, males. In fact, she never won a race against males. All of Azeri's stakes wins came in races at 1 1/16 miles and 1 1/8 miles. She never did win beyond 1 1/8 miles. How important are these weaknesses when Azeri's record is compared to the records of some of the greatest fillies and mares of all time?

Twilight Tear, the first female Horse of the Year, in 1944, won stakes at distances from six furlongs to 1 3/8 miles, and her victories against males were the Washington Park Classic and Pimlico Special in her Horse of the Year season. Busher, Horse of the Year in 1945, won stakes from six furlongs to 1 1/4 miles, and beat males in the 1945 Washington Park Handicap and Hollywood Derby. Shuvee won stakes from one mile all the way up to two miles, the grueling distance at which she beat males in consecutive Jockey Club Gold Cups in 1970 and 1971.

Ruffian, certainly the greatest filly I have ever watched, won stakes from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/2 miles. She was so special that just three races after she won a seven-furlong stakes in a time of 1:21.20 seconds, she won the 1 1/2-mile CCA Oaks. All Along was Horse of the Year in 1983, when she came from France after winning the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and humbled males in the old Rothmans at Woodbine, the Turf Classic, and the D.C. International, all in six weeks. Lady's Secret won stakes from six furlongs to 1 1/4 miles, and in 1986, when she was Horse of the Year, she beat males in the Whitney Handicap. Personal Ensign won stakes from one mile to 1 1/4 miles. And unlike Azeri, Personal Ensign never lost a race she had no business losing, as she went undefeated.

Whether Azeri was truly great is open to debate, and any analysis involved cannot escape subjectivity, which makes a definitive answer difficult to reach. In the end, it may not matter, anyway. Azeri is a lock to go into the Hall of Fame, and on the first ballot.