03/05/2003 12:00AM

Will 2003's early stars fizzle out by fall?

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LAS VEGAS - It started just the same way in 2002.

One year ago it was Mizzen Mast blowing away a strong group in the Grade 2 Strub Stakes at Santa Anita in early February. In only his second start on dirt for trainer Bobby Frankel, Mizzen Mast won impressively by four lengths and earned a powerful Beyer Speed Figure of 119. Exactly one month later, Milwaukee Brew won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap with a Beyer of 118. Strictly in terms of Beyer numbers, these two started off the season with a bang.

Just a few months after that, Street Cry, winner of the Dubai World Cup, put together big Beyers of 118 in June in the Grade 2 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs, and a 119 finishing second in the Grade 1 Whitney in early August at Saratoga. The winner of the Whitney, Left Bank, had a memorable figure of 121.

The strength of this quartet should have guaranteed strong representation for older handicap horses in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Unfortunately, Street Cry and Left Bank never raced again after the Whitney. Mizzen Mast never raced again after his overwhelming performance in the Strub. Only Milwaukee Brew from the Santa Anita Handicap field ultimately made it to the Breeders' Cup - and by that time he was only a shadow of what he had been early in March. Only Macho Uno made it from the Whitney. Nobody at all made it from the Woodward at Belmont Park, and the trio who went on from the Jockey Club Gold Cup - Milwaukee Brew, Evening Attire, and Harlan's Holiday - ran Beyers of 106, 102, and 77, respectively, in the Classic. They had little impact on the race.

This has been a persistent theme in the past few seasons: The best of the older horses either never make it to the supposed World Series of racing, or they make it with very little left in the tank. Will this year be any different?

Just as in 2002, the stage is set in 2003. The early promise is there.

* Medaglia d'Oro won the Strub Stakes just one month ago at Santa Anita with a Beyer of 119. Since 1990 the average winning figure for the Strub has been only 112. Medaglia d'Oro's 119 is by far the best Strub figure since Best Pal's 119 in 1992.

* Congaree won the Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap on Feb. 2 with a 118. The San Antonio averages a mere 110.4, and Congaree's figure is the highest for this race in the past decade. Congaree has now put together an impressive series of figures in his last four races: 120-115-118-116. This is championship caliber.

* Milwaukee Brew turned the tables on Congaree by a head in the Santa Anita Handicap last weekend, and has now run Beyer figures of 114 and 116 this year. That 116 by Congaree and Milwaukee Brew is fractionally above average for the Big Cap.

* Harlan's Holiday could soon join this elite group. His strong win in the Donn at Gulfstream Park earned a Beyer of 113 - just about average for that race.

To put these Beyers in even sharper perspective - to emphasize just how impressive they are - here are the averages since 1990 for some of the most prominent races involving older horses:

Donn113.6

Santa Anita Handicap115.8

Hollywood Gold Cup115.6

The Whitney115.1

Pacific Classic116.1

The Woodward115.7

Jockey Club Gold Cup115.1

Breeders' Cup Classic116.4

Clearly, this early-2003 group has exceptional quality and exciting potential. But, as usual these days, I have to ask: Will these horses have the necessary durability and stamina to sustain that high level of performance until early fall?

Last year - for the third consecutive year - the older stars didn't survive the long racing season. And the star 3-year-olds disappointed in the Breeders' Cup Classic. That left the field vulnerable to a stunning upset by the justifiably unheralded Volponi. It remains to be seen whether this year's promising start to the handicap season will lead to continuity throughout the year, or to another sputtering, anti-climactic finish.