09/03/2001 12:00AM

Year's best juveniles come from California


NEW YORK - There were strong indications of just how imposing Came Home would be in Saturday's Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga well before everyone got their Daily Racing Forms and took a first pass through the Hopeful field.

The indications were there a week earlier at Saratoga. On Aug. 24, trainer Eoin Harty sent Imperial Gesture out in a seven-furlong maiden race for 2-year-old fillies off what looked on paper to be a mediocre- looking debut a month earlier at Del Mar. Imperial Gesture won by almost 11 lengths and paid $17.40. The next day, Travers Day, Harty sent out Burnt Ember off a similar looking so-so debut at Del Mar, and he responded to win a six-furlong maiden race decisively, returning $10.

Harty did come back the day after the Travers with Dubai Edition, who he finished ninth at even money. But he was making his third start and was going from dirt to turf.

Anyway, based on what Imperial Gesture and Burnt Ember did, it was clear that the Southern California-based 2-year-olds were decidedly more advanced than their counterparts in the East.

Came Home won his first two starts at Hollywood Park, including the Hollywood Juvenile Championship, by open lengths in strong times, so when he was sent east for the Hopeful by trainer Paco Gonzalez, he had the look of a lead-pipe cinch.

He ran like it. Came Home pressed a strong pace set by fellow California shipper Roman Dancer, responded when challenged on the outside by the highly regarded Mayakovsky, and drew clear in the final furlong under only a few cracks of Chris McCarron's whip. All the while, it looked like Came Home had plenty in him to do more if the situation called for it.

Mayakovsky, who finished two lengths behind Came Home, but almost seven lengths in front of the third finisher, ran a lot better than I thought he would. He received a lot of attention after he broke a 55-year-old track record winning his debut opening day at Saratoga, but he caught an especially fast surface that day. He showed a lot more substance in the Hopeful, even in defeat, having made a big three-wide run at the winner after rating kindly. It is probably not a coincidence that before he came east for the Saratoga meet, Mayakovsky was based at Santa Anita.

Where does Came Home go next? He could go home and compete in the Sept. 29 Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita, where he would probably meet the likewise undefeated Officer, who many consider to be the West's best 2-year-old. Or he could reappear at Belmont Park in the Oct. 6 Champagne Stakes.

If Came Home were mine, there would be no question. With the Breeders' Cup this year at Belmont, the Champagne is the prep race of choice. There have been 10 Breeders' Cup races for 2-year-olds when a prep race over the track was available. Seven of those 10 Breeders' Cup races were won by 2-year-olds who came out of the preps over the track.

Is Point Given Horse of the Year?

Speaking of statistics, in the 30 years since the inception of the Eclipse Awards in 1971, only four horses were elected Horse of the Year who did not face older opponents. This is a timely topic, since the retired Point Given, who is a mortal lock to be champion 3-year-old male, will never have the opportunity to demonstrate how he measures up against his elders.

All four of those Horses of the Year - Secretariat in 1972, Seattle Slew in 1977, Favorite Trick in 1997, and Charismatic in 1999 - were involved in unusual circumstances.

When he won his first Horse of the Year award at 2, Secretariat's true greatness was already apparent.

As for Seattle Slew, it's impossible to take issue with the first colt to sweep the Triple Crown and remain undefeated being named Horse of the Year.

It is too easy to take issue with Favorite Trick's award. He was only the second 2-year-old to be voted Horse of the Year, so the honor put him on the same plane as Secretariat, and that was heresy. Moreover, there were three other more viable older horse candidates - Skip Away, Gentlemen, and Formal Gold.

Charismatic surely got a large sympathy vote after breaking down in the Belmont Stakes while in pursuit of the Triple Crown, and was helped by the fact that no older horse stepped up when it counted late in the season. So there is recent precedent to give Point Given Horse of the Year.

If the older horses take turns beating each other this fall, or if E Dubai flatters Point Given by somehow doing well against his elders in the big fall events, then fine, let's talk Horse of the Year for Point Given.

But if an older horse like Tiznow steps up and dominates this fall, then he shouldn't be penalized by having to overcome the "ghost" of Point Given. The fact is, Grade 1 races open to all comers are usually much tougher than Grade 1 races restricted to 3-year-olds, even if those Grade 1's include the Preakness, Belmont, and Travers, which Point Given won.

Like everyone else, I feel cheated that we will never see Point Given race again. But in our sorrow, it would be a mistake to jump to conclusions. There's still a lot of very important racing ahead. Let's see what happens. Then we'll talk Horse of the Year.