09/24/2007 12:00AM

Any Given Saturday's prep less than perfect

EmailNEW YORK - Even his most ardent admirers would have to admit that Any Given Saturday's performance in Saturday's Brooklyn Handicap at Belmont Park came in on the low end of the excitement meter. Yes, he won, and did so after a less-than-smooth start. But Any Given Saturday did not win the way a 1-9 shot is expected to. He was in a drive to pull away late from the unheralded Tasteyville. And Any Given Saturday's time of 1:48.31 for nine furlongs earned a Beyer Speed Figure of only 103, which is certainly nothing to write home about when you're talking about the game at its highest level.

Now, some of Any Given Saturday's biggest fans, while likely agreeing with the above assessment, would also insist that his Brooklyn be taken in proper context. They would say that the Brooklyn was just a prep race, a means to advance him to peak form for his real target, the Breeders' Cup Classic at Monmouth Park on Oct. 27. There would be merit in this if the Brooklyn really was just a mere prep race. But was it, really?

Using a race to sharpen a horse's form for a specific target is as old as the game itself. But in recent years, the whole concept of the prep race has become cloudy. And it is likely no coincidence that this has happened at the same time many of the sport's top trainers - such as Bobby Frankel, Kiaran McLaughlin, and, of course, Todd Pletcher, who just happens to train Any Given Saturday - have increasingly embraced the philosophy that when it comes to top-class racehorses, fresh is best.

It is interesting, and very much a reflection of the times, to see how past winners of the Breeders' Cup Classic were prepared. Three of the first four winners of the Classic had their last starts within two weeks of the Breeders' Cup. And nine of the subsequent 16 winners had last raced three weeks before Breeders' Cup Day. But the last three winners of the Classic might well be emblematic of the sea change in the way some top trainers now approach the game. Ghostzapper, winner of the 2004 Classic, and Saint Liam, the winner in 2005, both had not raced in seven weeks. And Invasor last year won the Classic off a 13-week absence, in part because of either a real illness, or a case of "it made no sense to face Bernardini twice in four weeks-itis."

It should also be noted that this philosophy doesn't apply only to the way horsemen approach the Breeders' Cup. For example, last year, we saw Barbaro become the first horse in 50 years to win the Kentucky Derby after having not raced in five or more weeks, and this year, Street Sense became the first horse in 24 years to win the Derby off only two prior starts at 3.

This isn't meant to suggest that when it comes time to handicap the Breeders' Cup Classic, you should automatically toss horses who raced after baseball's pennant races were decided. The current first two favorites for this year's Classic, Lawyer Ron (who is also trained by Pletcher) and Street Sense, are both scheduled to race this weekend, a mere four weeks before the big day.

This does, however, beg the question: What currently constitutes a prep race?

The term prep race evokes an image of a good horse running in a race of secondary importance, trying to win while keeping as much in reserve as possible with an eye toward an imminent primary goal. In the early days of the Breeders' Cup, you would often see horses put forward well-measured efforts in their final Cup preps, largely because those final preps frequently came only two or three weeks before the main target. But where it once made all the sense in the world to ask as little as possible from a horse prepping for the Breeders' Cup because he or she had only two or three weeks to recover, it is fair to wonder if this even applies in today's game, with trainers building in so much more time between starts for their horses.

In the case of Any Given Saturday, the Brooklyn was chosen as his final Breeders' Cup Classic prep over other more prestigious and richer races because for this particular horse, the five weeks between the Brooklyn and the Classic held greater appeal. So while Any Given Saturday wasn't going to earn one penny more if he went out and won the Brooklyn by 12 lengths and earned a 115 Beyer, with a full five weeks to recover between the Brooklyn and the Breeders' Cup, there also wasn't any real cause for his people to treat this like an old-school type of prep. With so much time between starts, there was no real reason to keep the clamps on Any Given Saturday's performance, if that is even what his connections did.

When viewed in this context, it would be entirely understandable if horseplayers were less forgiving of Any Given Saturday when the Breeders' Cup Classic rolls around.