02/08/2002 12:00AM

Tossing coins into racing's wishing well

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PHOENIX - Things I would like to see this year:

* Congaree back and better than ever. Tiznow, Point Given, Albert the Great, and Monarchos are retired. Lido Palace apparently won't be seen until summer, and Wooden Phone broke a shoulder; who knows when he will be back? The top handicap horse in the country is akin to the heavyweight champ in boxing. Congaree performing at his peak can give the division order.

* Val Royal running more than a couple times. He has hinted at brilliance, but there's a reason he's 6 and has only run 10 times; he's brittle. But the way he powered home in the Oak Tree BC Mile, then dusted the best milers in the world in the Breeders' Cup Mile has me licking my chops. I don't really know how good he can be. I hope trainer Julio Canani can keep him together for a more active campaign so we can find out.

* Habibti, You, Tempera, and Belterra all getting to the Kentucky Oaks in one piece. For a while last year You was all the rage, then it was Tempera, then Habibti put herself back on top. All the while Belterra has been dazzling them in Kentucky, earning her own corps of backers. It looks like a super crop of 3-year-old fillies and a significant summit at Churchill on the first Friday in May.

* Maybry's Boy bouncing back big in the Fountain of Youth. You could hear the naysayers from coast to coast after his fourth in the Hutcheson. But that race was contested over a track made bog-like by rains after the track was cut open. A seven-furlong race earlier on the card was run in 1:27.49. A 1 1/16-mile race went in 1:50.33, with the half in 50.07 seconds, the six furlongs in 1:15.17 and the mile in 1:42.83. Quiet Lake won a one-other-than allowance going 1 mile and 70 yards in 1:46.27; the six furlongs went in 1:15.13, the mile in a molasses-like 1:41.89.

Then fast horses like Showmeitall and Monthir went 1:26.07 for the seven-furlong Hutcheson. That's probably four seconds off what they would normally do. Needless to say, it was a very difficult track to handle, and Maybry's Boy's failure should not diminish the way he powered home in his previous races. In a year without a Derby standout he's the one horse who has grabbed my attention.

* Turf Paradise and Indian gaming interests settling their differences. The squabbling has gone on and on over the issue of slots being legal at the Indian casinos in the Phoenix area, but not at Turf Paradise or the dog tracks. So each group continues to spend money on commercials and on lobbying trying to quash the other. The best remedy is some sort of compromise. No one wants to see Turf Paradise, a delightful little facility, turn into a casino. They also don't want to see it become an office park, which isn't impossible should the current impasse remain.

One remedy would be for the Indian interests to designate a number of their slots, or a percentage of their take, to Turf Paradise. In exchange, Turf Paradise would again send its racing signal to the casino race books and forgo other pursuits to eliminate Indian gaming.

This would protect the rights of the Indian gaming interests, while allowing Turf Paradise to thrive in what is the new gambling world.

o*Kona Gold coming back with one more big one. He has been so good for so long. Only he and Affirmed Success can claim to be in the upper crust of their respective divisions for so long. Were his Breeders' Cup showing and dull Laurel Dash simply signs of age? Could be, but wouldn't you love to see him come back breathing fire against Squirtle Squirt, Caller One, Snow Ridge, and whoever else wishes to permanently send the one-time king of the jungle on his way to exile?

* Affluent getting the credit she deserves. Her connections were right. Why wasn't she given more hype or regard for the Eclipse as top 3-year-old filly? All the racing world was hemming and hawing over what counted more - Xtra Heat's overwhelming record sprinting, Flute's major victories, Golden Ballet's early prowess, or Unbridled Elaine's huge, shining moment in the Distaff. Affluent's resume included a Grade 1 win routing on turf, and a Grade 1 win sprinting on dirt. She was previously graded stakes-placed routing on dirt, and has started out 2002 right where she left off. A win in this weekend's La Canada (a dirt route) should eliminate all doubt.