We've all heard "don't count your chickens before they've hatched." How about this: Don't count your match-ups before they're matched.

We all know the story. Horses win in various parts of the country, or the world, and as soon as two of them show any sort of decent form, people start salivating about head-to-head competition. Last month everyone was counting the upcoming Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I) as the greatest race of the century. Maybe even last century too. Mineshaft vs. Candy Ride. And we all know what happened. Or what won't happen.

From June to August it was the Travers (gr. I). It was Funny Cide. It was Empire Maker. It wasn't happening.

Every year we can't wait to see the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner set sail for the finish line at Churchill Downs in May. Vindication was going to be the first unbeaten Derby (gr. I) winner since his sire, Seattle Slew. He's still unbeaten, all right. Because he never ran again after the Juvenile.

You remember the Juvenile, don't you? Last year's was going to be the incredible match-up between Vindication and Sky Mesa. You remember the thrill of watching that pair hook up, don't you?

How about Buddha's Derby last year? A.P. Indy's in 1992. Event of the Year. Fill in your favorite anticipated race; it's great fun for the whole family. Still think Azeri is going to hook up with Sightseek in the Distaff (gr. I)? Do you? There's this beautiful landmark bridge that spans from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I hear it's for sale. Interested?

I'm not suggesting a curse or jinx is at play here. I don't believe in them. Then again, I'm not a Red Sox or Cubs fan. But you have to wonder why people in this day and age of China-doll horses still believe, still anticipate they are going to witness the fascinating match-ups they've conjured in their heads. It has to be thus: While injuries run rampant in horses' legs, hope still springs eternal in the human breast. And folly in the head.

And remember the good old days when only injuries would keep horses from running in the Breeders' Cup? Now they don't go because their owners just don't wanna. Kind of defeats the whole purpose, doesn't it?

Hell, they needed something like two-dozen horses to play Seabiscuit in the film of the same name. Know why? If they had only one or two or three, they all would have come up lame or their owners would have demanded more money or had creative differences with the director. The film would never have been finished. And the sport would have missed out on its remarkable renaissance. You remember the renaissance, don't you?

Horse races are not baseball schedules. You can pick up your favorite ball club's agenda in March and start buying all the tickets you can afford, confident that when the schedule says the Yankees or the Giants are coming to town, there's a good chance they actually will show up flesh and blood. Horse racing? Just because they put a stakes race on the calendar doesn't mean any stakes-quality horses will be loaded into the gate, much less the ones you'd really like to see. We'd love to think so, but read the fine print.

And why oh why would anyone place a futures bet gambling that a horse 30 or 60 days out will win the race in question? The nice television ads promise that such bets offer "better odds." Too often, that is a lie. The lie of omission, of course, is if the horse doesn't make it to the race, you've just flushed your money down the toilet. I propose a new futures wager, one that gives the bettor a fighting chance. Set a line on a horse actually making it to a race. It's no better than a 50/50 proposition, but at least you've got a shot.

Let's do it this way: We see horses we think are really good ones. We'd love to have them show up in the same race. Take a tip from Austin Powers' Dr. Evil: "Zip it." Don't say a word aloud. Don't write it in chat rooms or on Web sites. Pray quietly. Miracles do happen. Don't they?

Lenny Shulman is features editor of The Blood-Horse.