01/08/2007 1:00AM

Among potential stars, only 'Saint' shines

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NEW YORK - Every racing fan expects Invasor, Discreet Cat, and Lava Man to be dominant figures in this year's handicap division, but it is not a given that they will be. And that is why the recent performances by Sweetnorthernsaint, Strong Contender, and Jazil - a trio who many believe have the potential to fill the gaps in the handicap division should the Big Three fail to meet expectations - were viewed with great interest.

Regardless of what Jazil, Strong Contender, and Sweetnorthernsaint did on the track this past Friday and Saturday, it would be silly to suggest that they are on the same level as Invasor, Discreet Cat, and Lava Man. Invasor is a virtual cinch to be voted the 2006 Horse of the Year on the basis of four Grade 1 wins from as many starts in this country last year, including a decisive win over Bernardini in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Discreet Cat handed Invasor the only defeat in his career in the UAE Derby and is himself undefeated. And with the way he won the UAE Derby and the Cigar Mile last fall, he might well be the world's most exciting horse. Lava Man was without peer last year in Southern California, and nothing that was seen in Dixie Meister's narrow, pace-advantaged win in Saturday's San Pasqual Handicap at Santa Anita would make one think that a change is at hand.

But in racing, as in life, stuff happens, and time marches on. As machine-like as Lava Man was in Southern California last year, it is important to remember that he is made of flesh and blood. It is also important to note that he just turned 6 and has some hard miles on him. There is no guarantee that Lava Man will be immune to the effects of age and the negative impact that could have on his form.

Invasor is targeting the Dubai World Cup in the manner of an American-based horse, which is to say he will have a start first in this country (the Donn Handicap is the plan) before going to Dubai. Unfortunately, the list of American-based horses who have attempted this and were never the same afterward is long. If Invasor returns to this country and is somehow effective in the second half of the season, he will be the exception rather than the rule.

Discreet Cat is also pointing to the Dubai World Cup, but as a Godolphin-owned colt, he is going about it a different way. He went to Dubai weeks before 2006 was over, meaning he will enjoy a much longer period of acclimatization. So it could be argued that he will have a better shot of returning to the U.S. and demonstrate peak form. But being that Discreet Cat is Godolphin-owned, it is important to note that if he stubs his toe along the way, or doesn't train to absolute satisfaction, he is at risk of being retired at a moment's notice.

So while Sweetnorthernsaint, Strong Contender, and Jazil aren't quite of the same quality as the Big Three, the considerations just offered are the reasons why their recent performances were of such interest. But the results were, at best, mixed.

Jazil made his first start since his upset of a Belmont Stakes last June that lacked both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner on Friday in an optional claimer at Aqueduct. Being a deep closer, Jazil was up against it on an Aqueduct inner track that naturally tilts in favor of speed. And even though he was an overwhelming 2-5 favorite, Jazil's race had the scent of a practice run. If viewed in that context, his second place finish was okay. He made a wide move from a distant last on the far turn and finished well. But if held to a stricter standard, then Jazil's return better have been a mere practice run. That is because being soundly beaten by a horse who was previously 2 for 19, and earning a modest 93 Beyer Speed Figure, just will not get it done in any sort of major stakes event, no matter what the condition of the handicap division.

Sweetnorthernsaint, who last year won the Illinois Derby and was second in Bernardini's Preakness, and Strong Contender, who won last year's Super Derby and Dwyer, both competed in Saturday's Hal's Hope Handicap at Gulfstream Park. Even though he was likely prepping for more suitable longer events around two turns, it was hard to be enthused about Strong Contender's effort. True, he was shuffled back in the early stages, but that was because he lacked the speed to maintain his position. And despite strong interior race fractions that should have helped elicit a late charge, Strong Contender could only manage a mediocre fifth.

Although he was also defeated, Sweetnorthernsaint ran by far the best race of the three who competed over the weekend. Now, Sweetnorthernsaint likes to be close to the lead in slower-paced route races, which is almost always a good thing. But for some reason, he went after the 105-1 Rexson's Rose early, as if Rexson's Rose was really a threat to go wire to wire and thus had to be kept honest early. That early expenditure of energy caused Sweetnorthernsaint to be passed in the stretch by Chatain and Sir Greeley, who both were a bit more patient in the early stages. In any event, Sweetnorthernsaint's third in the Hal's Hope was a good performance, one that might well be an indication a productive campaign is forthcoming.