12/15/2003 1:00AM

Wait till next year

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
The handicap division for 2004 is loaded with heavyweights such as Medaglia d'Oro, Congaree (above), Candy Ride, and Pleasantly Perfect.

NEW YORK - Around this time almost every year there is usually a lot of worrying about the projected quality of racing for the season to come. "Look at all the top horses who have retired," is the familiar cry. "Where will all the top horses come from to replace them?"

The truth is, a lot of top horses retire at the end of every season and, somehow, racing's sky doesn't fall. This year is no different. Mineshaft, Milwaukee Brew, Harlan's Holiday, Empire Maker, Azeri, Take Charge Lady, You, Bird Town, Spoken Fur, and Aldebaran are just some of the top horses of 2003 whose racing days are over.

But unlike in so many other years, there is no reason to lament the projected quality at the top of the game for 2004. And that is especially true of the handicap division, the division that is usually rendered thinnest by prominent retirements.

Although Mineshaft, who is likely to be voted not only this year's champion older male, but also Horse of the Year, has been retired, there is a strong nucleus of older horses returning - Medaglia d'Oro, Candy Ride, Congaree, Pleasantly Perfect, and Perfect Drift.

For a good chunk of this year, Medaglia d'Oro was considered by many to be the ranking older male, and even though he was surpassed by Mineshaft, he justifiably received a lot of credit for his game second in the Breeders' Cup Classic after disputing a strong pace. Medaglia d'Oro raced only five times this year, suggesting that he is fresh enough to demonstrate peak form next year at age 5.

Candy Ride, who earned the highest Beyer Speed Figure in 2003 - a 123 for his victory over Medaglia d'Oro in the Pacific Classic - and Pleasantly Perfect, upset winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic, are also lightly raced for their age. Argentine import Candy Ride will turn 5 on the Northern Hemisphere calendar and has only six starts (winning them all), while Pleasantly Perfect, a soon-to-be 6-year-old, was making only his 13th career start when he won the Classic.

Congaree, meanwhile, is a Grade 1 winner at seven furlongs, one mile, 1 1/8 miles, and 1 1/4 miles - making him very much a current day Precisionist, and very handy to have around. Perfect Drift, who engineered victories over Mineshaft and Congaree this year while only beginning to come into his own, is a gelding who figures to have another in what should be a series of strong campaigns next year at 5.

As solid as this core of returning older horses is, they will be joined by a long list of quality graduates from the 3-year-old class that can be divided into three groups: proven performers, classy comebackers, and intriguing breakout prospects.

Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide heads the list of proven commodities among soon-to-be 4-year-olds. And while it is fair to wonder what precisely Funny Cide will give us, and what exactly can be expected of him, Funny Cide has good company in Ten Most Wanted and Peace Rules, who are both legitimate Grade 1 middle-distance horses on dirt.

Among the classy comebackers are Buddy Gil and Atswhatimtalknbout. Buddy Gil will return in the Malibu on opening day at Santa Anita, the day after Christmas. Atswhatimtalknbout will not reappear until some time after that. But both showed genuine quality earlier this year - Buddy Gil in consecutive victories in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby and Atswhatimtalknbout in his excellent fourth in the Kentucky Derby.

The list of potential breakout candidates includes Ghostzapper, Soto, Dynever, Grand Hombre, and Strong Hope, and it shouldn't surprise anyone if one of these is in line for an Eclipse Award this time next year.

Ghostzapper couldn't have been more impressive winning the Vosburgh in his final start at 3, and the hope is, despite his success sprinting, he will be stretched out next year.

In his final appearance at 3, Soto was narrowly beaten in the Super Derby by Ten Most Wanted, stopping his unbeaten streak at five. He is trained by Michael Dickinson, however, and that means he is capable of just about anything.

Dynever, Grand Hombre, and Strong Hope all entered this year as unraced unknowns, but each became well known to those who pay attention. Dynever has a powerful late kick, which carried him to a career best when he ran third in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Grand Hombre was so electrifying winning the Pennsylvania Derby that Godolphin went out and bought him. And Strong Hope beat Empire Maker in the Jim Dandy in what turned out to be Empire Maker's final start. All three should get better in their second season of racing.

So, the game in 2004 looks like it could be pretty good. And it could be even better than good when you consider that at this time last year no one had even heard of Mineshaft.