06/04/2004 12:00AM

What's next? Sadly, not much


ELMONT, N.Y. - If racing had not been understandably obsessed with Smarty Jones's Triple Crown bid for the last five weeks, we might still be talking about an unusual bounty of talent and quality in the sport this year: the true bumper crop of top-class older horses that has emerged this season.

It was good enough when it was just Pleasantly Perfect and Medaglia d'Oro, returning better than ever from their one-two finish in last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic. Pleasantly Perfect was dominating, stretching his legs with a facile San Antonio victory, while Medaglia d'Oro's romp in the Donn Handicap was brilliant. They then took their "A" races nearly halfway around the world for a thrilling Dubai World Cup.

Medaglia d'Oro's retirement Friday ended hopes of a third act to that rivalry, but this is a rare year when the division can withstand that loss and still be a strong one.

No one paid much attention to the Santa Anita Handicap, and the Pimlico Special was lost in the fuss surrounding the Preakness the next day, but Southern Image has put together a first-half campaign that in most years would make him the nation's ranking racehorse. His Pimlico Special earned the same lofty Beyer Speed Figure of 118 as Smarty Jones's Preakness over the same track and distance the next day.

Midway Road, the Special runner-up, owns the year's top Beyer of 123.

Yet another star has risen in Pico Central, whose Met Mile victory last Monday, in a field that included a Derby-Preakness winner and a Horse of the Year, received little attention amid the Belmont Week carnival. A Brazilian son of Spend a Buck, Pico Central proved he is a seriously fast racehorse wiring the Carter in April, and showed a new dimension rating and rallying to win the Met. It will be fascinating to see if his handlers try to get him to go another furlong this summer.

There are others who make this the deepest crop of older males in recent memory. Peace Rules, pointing for the Stephen Foster next weekend, is a very tough customer up to nine furlongs and still has room for improvement. Dynever's non-effort in the Pimlico Special was too bad to be true after a fast and flashy seasonal debut winning the San Bernardino. While Funny Cide was never as good as some people hoped a year ago, on his best day he's a lot better than he has looked recently.

One can only hope that some of the throngs supposedly being awakened to horse racing by this year's Triple Crown will come back again this year to see some of these excellent older horses, but the historical record says it doesn't work out that way. As good a job as the industry has done promoting the Triple Crown, it has been negligent about capitalizing on its gains there by coming up with other compelling events between the Belmont and the Breeders' Cup. We've got everyone's attention, but what are we doing with it after the Smarty Party is over?

The Thoroughbred Championship Tour, an owner-backed initiative to fill that void, has been slow to gather momentum while mired in issues of authorship, control, and economics. The group has failed to articulate a clear plan and the endeavor has the appearance, fairly or not, of being as much a power grab by grouchy horse owners as an attempt to do something good for the game.

It can't work without the full involvement and enthusiastic support of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Breeders' Cup and the three behemoths that operate the Triple Crown and most of the nation's important racing - Churchill Downs, Magna, and the New York Racing Association. A new initiative on the scale of the Breeders' Cup will require broad-based industry support and public interest to succeed rather than selective private funding and a new, competing infrastructure.

It's hard to answer a theoretical novice, his interest piqued by Smarty Jones, who asks what the next big thing on the racing calendar is. The connections of Pleasantly Perfect and Smarty Jones have outlined second-half campaigns that might involve just two starts - a prep where they can duck the other big names, and then the Classic. In addition to a better-structured series of races leading to the Breeders' Cup in each division, the game could use a summertime series of major events for older horses with seven-digit purses and a huge bonus to encourage meaningful showdowns before the last weekend in October.

For all the things racing has done wrong in the last 20 years, it has done two things very well in taking the Triple Crown to new heights and creating a coherent year-end spectacle in the Breeders' Cup. Now it's time to put something just as good in the long stretch between them.