09/09/2004 12:00AM

As Belmont starts, let's wrap up Spa


ELMONT, N.Y. - A review of Saratoga's six weeks yields impressions, observations, and forecasts for the immediate future. Some of the most notable days:

July 28 - For the third straight year, rain forced opening-day turf races to be switched to the main track, which was muddy and sealed but unbiased. After Classic Elegance rallied from seventh to win the Schuylerville, several observers spoke in awe of the 2-year-old filly's "monster move," when in reality the final quarter of 26.99 seconds could have been timed with an hourglass. My homemade Quirin-style pace and final-time figures for the race were 105-95, a fast-slow race shape. Predictably, none of the 10 Schuylerville entrants has come back to win, and it is looking more and more like a negative key race.

July 29 - The track was drying out from good to wet-fast. Wide ralliers did exceptionally well, most notably the Mark Hennig-trained first-time starter Play With Fire, who lagged far back to the quarter pole before unleashing a strong late run in the middle of the track to pay $99, the highest win price of the meet. In contrast to the Schuyerville, the 2-year-old colt Afleet Alex won a slow-paced Sanford, pace and speed 100-107, that had a slow-fast race shape. Any horse racing on the rail this day deserves the benefit of the doubt for a subpar performance.

Aug. 1 - Another drying-out track, and another bias in favor of off-the-pace horses rallying on the far outside. So far, the roll call of dead-rail trip winners from this card includes Western Times, Yankee Doodle Boy, Summer Raven, My Man George, and most notably Storm Flag Flying, who ran third behind Azeri in the Go for Wand and then turned the tables in the Personal Ensign four weeks later.

Aug. 7 - Intermittent rain was heaviest after the sixth race. The main track was harrowed and wet-fast for the Whitney Handicap, in which Roses in May proved he is for real by stalking a blistering pace and outgaming perfect-trip closer Perfect Drift by a nose, pace and speed 118-113. That 118 is the highest pace figure I have calculated for any route race this year.

Aug. 12 - The meet's best entry-level allowance sprint didn't become readily apparent until Labor Day, when Love of Money, a six-length winner in the slop on this day, went on to wire the Pennsylvania Derby in his first start around two turns, and just his fourth lifetime start. A few minutes after the Pa. Derby, Primary Suspect, a well-beaten third behind Love of Money after Beyering 100 to win his debut at Monmouth, shows he simply prefers a fast track and terrorizes his field with pace-speed figs of 107-109, well above par. Primary Suspect looks like a can't-miss stakes prospect.

Aug. 14 - Freshened stakes runners from Todd Pletcher are usually ready to fire. Purge, away since a last-place finish in the Belmont Stakes, came within .60 of the track record winning the Jim Dandy on Aug. 8. Six days later, Speightstown, given a break since winning the True North in 1:08.04 on Belmont Day, returned to run another six furlongs in 1:08.04, equaling the track record in the A.G. Vanderbilt. His pace and speed figures were 111-115, the 115 a meet-best final fig according to my personal figures.

Aug. 21 - Coronado's Quest was a 2-year-old debut winner at the Spa and won the Travers the next year. He seems to have passed on his affinity for this track to the Allen Jerkens-trained Society Selection, who added Lasix after a dull Mother Goose and became the first filly to complete the Test-Alabama double since November Snow back in 1992, also for Jerkens. Pace and speed figures for the Alabama were a solid 112-110.

Aug. 22 - Galloping Grocer aired by nearly a dozen lengths in his debut as a universal good thing at 4-5, but his fractions are open to interpretation. Galloping Grocer ran the five furlongs through splits of 21.88 seconds, 45.83, and 56.88 to narrowly miss the track record, which means he got a breather through a second quarter of 23.95 before uncorking the fifth furlong in 11.05 seconds. Is this an indication of Galloping Grocer's ability to rate, which would bode well for an upcoming stretch-out? Or will he become unglued when asked to keep pace through a faster second-quarter segment in his first start against winners?

Aug. 28 - Where were you when the lights went out? Under cover of darkness and a rapidly approaching thunderstorm, Birdstone returned from a 12-week layoff to win an eerie Travers as much the best. I would love to know how one is supposed to come up with figures for the Travers, though, because it was the only two-turn dirt race on the card, and rain had begun to fall just after Pomeroy got an opening on the inside big enough to drive a Mack truck through to win the King's Bishop.