06/14/2006 11:00PM

Belmont Day more than 1-horse show


NEW YORK - The Belmont Stakes obviously overshadowed the other 12 races on the Belmont Park card last Saturday, but there was plenty of good and important racing on the undercard that deserves more than also-ran notice:

* Gorella's victory in the Just a Game Breeders' Cup was the performance of the day. Dead last, 9 1/2 lengths behind a quality, loose-on-the-lead front-runner in Pommes Frites, Gorella overcame an impossible-looking disadvantage to make up five lengths in the final furlong and win by a neck. It was a tremendous effort by both the 4-year-old filly and by Julien Leparoux, who showed astounding patience and confidence not moving an inch too soon. Leparoux, the nation's leading rider by victories, is more than ready for prime time in New York.

* Anew's victory in the True North Handicap completed a remarkable ascension by a horse who was running in conditioned claiming races a few months ago. Since being gelded, Anew has not only turned into a different animal but also is improving from race to race. His six furlongs in 1:08.10 translated to a Beyer Speed Figure of 112, putting him in the top flight of the nation's sprinters.

* Afrashad's performance winning an allowance race half an hour before the True North was in some ways just as impressive as Anew's. A 4-year-old Godolphin-owned colt, making only his second career start and his first in 23 months, Afrashad set faster fractions than Anew did in the True North despite breaking slowly and rushing up - 21.86 and 44.12 seconds versus Anew's 22.12 and 44.46. His final time of 1:08.38 was good for a Beyer Figure of "only" 107, but pace handicappers will consider it just as good a race, and the sky seems the limit for this Smoke Glacken colt as an important sprinter.

* Another reason Afrashad's fractions were so impressive is that he was racing into a strong wind that was against horses down the backstretch all day. That wind probably played no role in the final times of the six-furlong sprints or the 12-furlong Belmont, where the horses enjoyed equal amounts of racing into and with the wind, but it may have compromised the times of the card's two races run out of the chute, where the horses raced into the wind for most of the race. So it may pay not to put too much stock into the lowly Beyer of 89 earned by Bushfire in the Acorn. She and runner-up Hello Liberty were both extremely resolute setting the pace and holding on down the stretch in a race that set up better for the closers in the field.

* The Manhattan Handicap lived up to its billing as the best grass field assembled this year, ending with four high-quality turf specialists two heads and a neck apart. Cacique got the victory, which seemed fitting after narrow losses under questionable rides in his last two starts, but runner-up Relaxed Gesture may have run the most impressive race, given that he rallied from dead last into a slow pace and was making his first start since November after failing to get a prep. Grey Swallow also seems to be rounding back to his best European form and finished very well after missing the break.

Poll needs clarification

As for the main event, Jazil's victory was decisive and pleasing but did nothing to dislodge Barbaro and Bernardini from the leadership of the nation's 3-year-olds. Saturday's results were somewhat more flattering to Barbaro, since the horses who ran 2-3-4 behind him in the Derby came back to run 2-4-1 in the Belmont. Meanwhile, Hemingway's Key, third in the Preakness, was a distant sixth in the Belmont, and Doc Cheney, second to Bernardini in the Withers, was a bad sixth in the Woody Stephens.

Any rational assessment of the crop has Barbaro at the top, but not the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's final poll ranking the 3-year-olds, where Bernardini came out on top by a 167-137 point tally. This seems, however, to reflect confusion on the part of some of the 18 voters in that poll, 10 of whom put Barbaro first while the other eight gave him an average ranking of only sixth in the crop with some omitting him altogether. Apparently some of these voters incorrectly thought Barbaro could or should not be ranked any more because of his career-ending injury.

If the NTRA is going to continue this poll next year, it should clarify the situation for its voters so as not to promulgate such a misleading result. If voting for 3-year-old champion were held today, Barbaro would rightly win in a landslide. Barbaro won four stakes this year to Bernardini's two and has a 2-1 edge in Grade 1's. Bernardini will probably have to win not only the Haskell or Travers but also a major race against older horses this fall to dislodge Barbaro from the top of the class.