09/22/2005 12:00AM

Autumn in New York starts with a whimper

Perfect Drift has been one of the best horses in his division for four years.

ELMONT, N.Y. - This is Black Hole Weekend for stakes racing in New York, the first Saturday since Aqueduct's spring meet where there has not been a stakes race of Grade 1 or Grade 2 status to write about - a span of nearly five months.

I thought perhaps Calder's all-stakes pick four would attract a few New York shippers, maybe enough to do a column giving some background about the subtleties of those races at Saratoga and/or Belmont.

No dice. The 60 horses in the sequence are all based at Calder. Among those five dozen, exactly three ran somewhere other than Calder last time out, and of that trio, only Tizzys No Saint ran in New York.

Four weeks ago, Tizzys No Saint finished fourth in the Hopeful Stakes at seven furlongs. It stands to reason he should be a contender as he stretches out to a mile and 70 yards in the Foolish Pleasure, but that's the extent of my knowledge about Saturday's stakes action at Calder.

In the midst of my despair, I miraculously remembered that Andy Rooney had suffered through a similar dry spell in his syndicated column last week, which he masterfully cobbled together with several short thoughts and anecdotes that were not full-length material by themselves.

Andy Rooney is such a brilliant man.

Time heals mental wounds

One of the character traits necessary for horseplayers to persevere, probably the most important one, is the ability to deal with being wrong. Even the best handicappers are going to be wrong two-thirds of the time, so you had better be comfortable with it.

It is particularly agitating, though, to be dead wrong when the whole world is watching, only to have the passage of time prove you correct when no one is paying attention.

Exhibit A is Perfect Drift, my shrewd selection to win the 2002 running of the Belmont Stakes. Coming off a third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, he was bumped at the start, steadied in tight between horses on the first turn, swung wide on the far turn, and finished next-to-last as the 5-1 second choice, beaten more than 50 lengths.

"That's some pick you had in the Belmont," was the gist of the comforting postrace support from friends and neighbors. "What a bum. Don't you ever pick a good horse?"

It has taken a little more than three years, but I am no longer mad at Perfect Drift for failing to show up that day. I have even forgiven him for losing last year's Whitney by a nose to the then-unheralded Roses in May, a nose that cost me the Saturday press box pool and the pick four.

How can you stay mad at a horse who has remained among the best in his division for four seasons, when most horses with his kind of talent can't stay in training for more than a couple of races before they self-destruct?

I told you he was a good horse. Just not that day.

Photo bears witness to frustration

Even worse than being proven right on a delayed basis is being right and losing in the most excruciating manner possible.

Because of the rain last week, and the uncertainty over turf racing, the entries were late last Friday for Sunday's card. There was plenty of time to kill during the afternoon while waiting around for the overnight, so we were spanning the simulcast world and happened upon the seventh race at Laurel, a nice 11-horse allowance on their newly renovated turf course.

Polly's Persuasion had a spotty record, but she had won her first start on turf at Colonial Downs at 127-1 and had earned a Beyer Speed Figure (75) that was competitive with Speedy Deedy, who was coming off figures of 74-78-77 at Delaware Park and Saratoga.

Speedy Deedy was 9-5 and Polly's Persuasion was 28-1, so I took a flier on Polly's Persuasion and watched as she sped clear leaving the gate and built a five-length lead under apprentice Kelvin Serrano. She still had five lengths on the field in midstretch, and no one was coming except the 9 horse.

I don't need to tell you the rest. After horseplayers have watched enough stretch runs, they have these things measured in their heads, and they know what the photo will be long before the horses actually hit the wire. Polly's Persuasion was caught in the final strides and fell a neck short, and just like that I had snatched some fresh aggravation from out of the blue.

Then someone said something that might be the most consoling thing anyone has ever said at the racetrack: "If you're a good handicapper, you're going to be involved in a lot of photos."

I had never thought of it that way, but I will from now on. Anything to keep from grinding my molars into powder.