12/29/2006 1:00AM

Tough game still able to hit your soft spot


ARCADIA, Calif. - Time to clean off the desktop and sweep the stables. The 2006 racing season, in limbo since the Breeders' Cup, is now officially finished. Hats off to the leaders of the pack - in particular Garrett Gomez, Julien Leparoux, Invasor, and the mega-stables of Todd Pletcher and Scott Lake - and condolences to those who fell short of expectations. In case no one has noticed, it's a very tough game.

Tough by nature, and sometimes tough by choice. There were any number of vivid examples during the 2006 racing season, and from a personal standpoint, these were the thoughts and images that lingered:

* The death of champion sprinter Lost in the Fog was about as hard to swallow as any of the many casualties suffered by the warriors of the game. With undetected malignant tumors winding around his spine and beginning to press against his kidneys, this incomparable animal still managed to win the Aristides Handicap at Churchill Downs in early June. Three months later he was gone. Though given every chance to survive, the brave colt ended up the tragic yin to Barbaro's heroic yang, reminding us that veterinary miracles come along only once in awhile.

* Barbaro's Preakness injury, followed by extensive surgery and his battle with founder, has been rated among the sports stories of the year, and rightfully so. Racing headlines through the last few years have been highlighted by pick six fixes, mare reproductive loss syndrome, and early superstar retirements. Apologies to Barbaro that he had to lug the game on his shoulders, but it looks as if there might be a happy ending after all.

* The last time anyone checked, three of North America's leading trainers were serving vacations - oops, make that suspensions - based on drug violations, while no fewer than 10 jockeys had been banned from various tracks, mainly in Florida, for reasons as yet unknown. If this isn't playing hardball enforcement, I'm not sure what qualifies, especially in a business once so pervasively crooked that they gave heroin the nickname "horse."

* As this is written, horses are still being slaughtered in the United States, and a significant number of them continue to be racing animals, either Thoroughbreds or Quarter Horses, bred for a specific use. That use is not as food, for anyone or any culture. But the practice persists, justified by the worst aspects of property rights and veterinary hypocrisy. It was of some note, therefore, that the issue was debated on the floor of the U.S. Congress for the first time, and a bill was passed that could eventually lead to the end of horse slaughter in our time.

* In fact, 2006 may be remembered for a long time as the year the racing industry broke cover and went willingly before its government, pleading its case for reform and relief. At one time or another, the legislative process was confronted not only with the slaughter of horses, but also the issue of workers' compensation for backstretch laborers, catastrophic insurance coverage for jockeys, the spread of casino gaming, and the ongoing legality of Internet betting on horse racing. No one has suggested that the game should be nationalized, although it seems to work in Japan.

* I have been kept awake nights, trying hard to worry about the fate of New York racing. Honest, I try. Somehow, though, I know deep in my soul that there will always be a Belmont, a Saratoga, and even an Aqueduct, now that slots will be jingling the walls. So I finally drift off, at peace in the certainty that whoever is running the show, there will be plenty of money to spread around, and that maybe, just maybe, any woes that the New York Racing Association is going through right now are nothing more than karmic payback for throwing Braulio Baeza under the bus in the so-called jockey weight scandal.

* I probably took more time than I should have agonizing over the vote for Horse of the Year. It has been six long seasons since Tiznow, as a 3-year-old of 2000, provided the kind of crystal clarity I prefer, although Mineshaft came pretty darn close in 2003.

Moreover, the racing industry will have to swallow the fact that, for the third consecutive season, the most famous racehorse in America will not be awarded the game's supreme honor, as Barbaro follows in the footsteps of Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex. This makes sense, but only to those who hold fast to the tradition that the Eclipse Awards are not a popularity contest. Still, with 35,000 foals a year, it is not unreasonable to expect that a Cigar, a Skip Away, or an Alysheba come along to lead the way.

In the end, I decided to let the breadth of the calendar be my guide, settling upon a horse who started eight times and won seven, competed from January to November, and, as a bonus, will be running again in 2007 if the fates allow. Lava Man may have lost fair and square to Invasor in the Breeders' Cup Classic, but one race should not make a season, any more than one losing day shouldn't ruin a meet.

In a perfect world, Lava Man and Invasor would meet again in the coming months, in a race like the Donn, or the Santa Anita Handicap, or the Oaklawn Handicap. But I won't lose sleep waiting for it to happen. It's not just a tough game, it is also far from perfect.