10/09/2001 11:00PM

Aptitude's rapid rise defies explanation


PHILADELPHIA - Is it possible that the best horse in America had finished first in exactly two races (one maiden and one allowance) as of two months ago? The evidence suggests it's so.

Until Aug. 19, Aptitude surely looked like the horse that was always going to be good.

After last Saturday's Jockey Club Gold Cup, Aptitude looks like the obvious American favorite for the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic.

Aptitude won his maiden race on Jan. 1, 2000. The colt finished first just once for the next 20 months. Does this sound like a potential favorite for what we Americans think is the most important race in the world?

How exactly did this happen? The easy answers are a. Bobby Frankel; b. Jerry Bailey, and c. blinkers. The harder answer is d. Who knows?

Frankel has always been with Aptitude, but even the great trainer has never had a run like he's having now. He's doing things that can't be done. So why should anybody be surprised when Aptitude shows amazing Beyer improvement with no warning?

Bailey has been aboard for the last two races, the two where the colt actually finished first. Aptitude's three-race winning streak started in the July 1 Hollywood Gold Cup after the dubious disqualification of Futural. Laffit Pincay Jr. rode that day. Bailey was on the colt when he finished third in the June 10 Californian. So it hasn't been all Bailey.

The blinkers were added before the Hollywood Gold Cup. Aptitude earned a career-best Beyer (107), but that simply looked like a return to his Kentucky Derby form of a year before when he got a 106 after finishing second to Fusaichi Pegasus.

That performance had always suggested Aptitude possessed great talent. Given that the Derby was just Aptitude's sixth race and the colt had been raced right into it after running very well in both the Gotham and Wood Memorial, you just knew the ability was there.

Aptitude finished second in a weak Belmont Stakes and got a 99 Beyer. The colt disappeared until October when he won an allowance before finishing far back in the Clark Handicap.

By then, Aptitude was a forgotten horse.

When he showed up in the Dubai World Cup, you had to wonder why. Aptitude finished sixth.

By the summer, Aptitude was off the radar screen. Then, Frankel got as hot as any trainer has ever gotten. After Aptitude's two decent efforts at Hollywood Park, the colt was shipped to New York. And exploded.

It was no surprise when Aptitude finally finished first in a stakes race on Aug. 19. The Saratoga Breeders' Cup Handicap had a weak field. Aptitude was even money.

It was the colt's move that stood out. As soon as Aptitude moved, the race was over. Visually, it was dazzling, but what did he beat? Actually, nothing much. But the Beyer told the story. Aptitude had earned a 116.

Could it have been a fluke? Surely.

Would Aptitude bounce in the Jockey Club Gold Cup? Could he duplicate the Beyer against better horses?

Given the Frankel factor, the latter seemed more likely. Still, nobody could have foreseen what went down.

Aptitude again rushed by the field. He won by 10 lengths. On the surface, the time of 2:01.49 for 1 1/4 miles didn't seem that exciting. Until one realized times had been relatively slow all day.

Once the figure was calculated, it was obvious that this was a serious performance. Aptitude, the colt with the great pedigree and all that potential, had earned a 123, rare Beyer air these days.

So, exactly how does a 4-year-old go from 103 in mid-June to 107 in early July to 116 in mid-August to 123 in early October?

There is no easy answer to that. The important question is what will it be on Oct. 27?