12/11/2002 1:00AM

Year's best Beyer horse a close call


LAS VEGAS - In 1998, it was the obvious horse, Skip Away. In 1999, it was a dark horse, Running Stag. In 2000, it was a horse of a completely different color - a sprinter, Kona Gold. And in 2001, it was a lukewarm choice in a mediocre season, Lido Palace.

Who is the Beyer Speed Figure Horse of the Year for 2002?

This year's winner finished in a two-horse photo that was just too close to call. In fact, it was so close that I had to bring in two outside consultants to separate them at the wire.

Just as in 2001, this year's older handicap horses were either disappointing, inconsistent, or injury prone. Congaree is a classic case.

He disappointed all season, but then ran a huge 120 Beyer in the Cigar Mile. But that only brought his average Beyer up to 106.4 (even after dropping his lowest speed figure from the calculations - as I do with every candidate).

The other top older horses had only mediocre average Beyers:

Crafty C.T., 108.33; Evening Attire, 108.87; Macho Uno, 109.8; Lido Palace, 110.5; Milwaukee Brew, 110.66; Momentum, 111.16; and Sky Jack, 111.25.

Two horses who had the potential to dominate the handicap division failed to qualify because they simply did not race enough (a minimum of four races in the United States is usually required). Mizzen Mast ran once very early in the year and earned a Beyer Figure of 118, and Street Cry ran a 118 in the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs and a 119 in the Whitney at Saratoga. Then he was retired after an injury. Although he did run twice earlier in the year in Dubai, all I can give him is honorable mention.

Among the 3-year-olds, War Emblem has to be dismissed right away. With so many weak performances before and after his big efforts in the spring, his Beyer average isn't even remotely close to the main contenders.

Medaglia d'Oro emerges the best in his division, with an average of 107.25. The 4-year-old filly Azeri, who might well be voted the more traditional Horse of the Year, averaged 106.9.

With one remarkable exception, the sprinters also disappointed. Swept Overboard, for example, was in the War Emblem category - terribly erratic. Snow Ridge had five races early in the year, averaged 108.6, and then was retired in mid-May. Bonapaw averaged only 108.4.

That leaves us with two contenders in an extremely tight photo.

First, a remarkable sprinter. This horse ran 10 times in 2002 with six victories, including the last five in a row, finishing with a win in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Of course, this is likely champion sprinter Orientate.

Second, his main rival. This horse ran only four times in 2002, but earned figures of 109-97-121-121. He won major stakes at six furlongs, seven furlongs, and 1 1/8 miles. His victory in the Whitney at Saratoga was stunning. Of course, I'm talking here about Left Bank.

These are the two contenders. They each have a solid claim on the highest average Beyer Figure. Orientate ran eight races on the dirt, averaging 111.625. If I drop his poorest effort, his average increases to 112.86. Unfortunately, he also had two grass races very early in the year, when his trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, had Snow Ridge going well and saw no need for two top dirt sprinters. So Lukas thought he would experiment with Orientate on the turf. If I eliminate those two grass races from consideration, can I also drop his poorest dirt race? Would that be fair?

Left Bank ran only the minimum of four races, so I cannot drop his poorest effort, a 97 Beyer in the Metropolitan Mile when he chased an insane pace and faded badly in the stretch. So his average Beyer is exactly 112. If I dropped Orientate's two grass races and his lowest dirt figure, then perhaps in fairness I should drop Left Bank's worst dirt race. That would give him an average of 117 and make him a runaway winner.

What to do? I had my own opinion, but, since Solomon was not available, I consulted two Vegas friends and expert handicappers, Paul Cornman and Joe Kraus. I explained the dilemma. Neither one of them hesitated for a second.

They both voted for Left Bank. That made it unanimous. Left Bank had the bigger figures and they came in longer races, and that had to be the deciding factor between these two horses who otherwise were impossible to separate.

And so Left Bank becomes the first posthumous winner of the Beyer Speed Figure Horse of the Year.

One final reflection on this year's Beyers. In 1998 Skip Away averaged in excess of 115. Running Stag averaged 116 in 1999. And even last year's winner, Lido Palace, who seemed to have won out in a year of mediocre and erratic performers, averaged 114.25. That no Thoroughbred in 2002 could average more than 112 seems to add another bit of evidence confirming a worrisome trend: the growing fragility and weakness of the American racehorse.