10/18/2001 11:00PM

When a champion is not a champion

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NEW YORK - The problem with calling the Breeders' Cup races the World Thoroughbred Championships is that they frequently aren't, a point that may well be illustrated again in their first running under that new banner. While Saturday's eight races look like thoroughly enjoyable and bettable propositions that will certainly determine many divisional championships, the biggest title of all is still likeliest to end up going to the absent and retired Point Given.

This is not an unusual situation, especially in recent years. The Breeders' Cup Classic winner has been the Horse of the Year only twice in the last eight years and in only seven of the 17 years since the Cup began. During the same eight-year span, in which only Tiznow and Cigar won the Classic and the big title in the same year, the honor has as often gone to a 3-year-old who was through for the season - Holy Bull in 1994 and Charismatic in 1999.

If this year's Classic ends with a surprising winner, as it did in those years - Concern in 1994 and Cat Thief in 1999 - then Point Given is a cinch. Even if one of the four most accomplished Classic entrants wins, it may not be enough to overtake the clubhouse leader.

Aptitude might have the strongest case if he can add an impressive Classic victory to his big-figure, 10-length Jockey Club Gold Cup triumph. Victories in the Hollywood Gold Cup, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Breeders' Cup Classic are a stronger trifecta than many a Horse of the Year has offered. There are, however, some asterisks to those first two triumphs. He was clearly second best when awarded victory via disqualification at Hollywood, and at Belmont he romped over a pair of thinly credentialed longshots when his prime competition completely failed to fire.

One of those non-firers was Albert the Great, who might jump back into the Horse of the Year fray with a Classic victory but who would still offer an incomplete case. The Classic would be his only Grade 1 victory of the year against four losses in such events, and he would still have lost to Lido Palace two of the three times they met.

Lido Palace, skipping the Classic because he would have to be supplemented for $800,000, may still end up as the champion older horse if Aptitude loses Saturday, but his Whitney and Woodward victories over Albert the Great weren't enough to pass Point Given in the public mind, and winning a race in Japan next month won't get him over the hump.

The two other possibilities are the European stars Fantastic Light and Galileo. A Classic victory by either in their dirt debuts after remarkable grass campaigns in Europe would present an intriguing case. Either would be rightfully acknowledged as the Horse of the World, but does that make you the North American Horse of the Year?

Not necessarily. Many Eclipse voters appear to have trouble giving this continent's top prize to horses who run here just once. If they didn't, Daylami and not Charismatic would have won the 1999 award, and Charismatic had a less compelling record than Point Given does this year.

If Galileo wins the Classic, he and Point Given would both be 3-year-olds who went 6 for 7 this year. Point Given would have a 5-4 edge in Grade 1 triumphs, but Galileo would have beaten his elders twice, and on two continents, while Point Given ran exclusively against - it's time to say so - a truly substandard crop of American 3-year-olds. Point Given had a wonderful run taking four seven-digit pots in a row, but victories over A P Valentine, Touch Tone, and E Dubai are not the stuff of greatness.

I voted for Daylami over Charismatic, and would probably vote for a Classic-winning Galileo over Point Given, but I suspect I would be in the minority again.