02/06/2006 12:00AM

Brass Hat, High Limit are both legit


NEW YORK - You see it happen so often that it has almost become predictable. A racing surface will suddenly develop a distinct favoritism toward horses with early speed. Everyone notices it, including jockeys and trainers. Invariably, late in the card, there will be a race where the participants will be so intent on trying to capitalize on the way the track is playing that there will be a wild pace battle. The pace will be so demanding that the speed won't hold up, even under markedly favorable conditions, and a horse will be a bias-buster and come from way back to win.

That was the case when Brass Hat won Saturday's Donn Handicap at rainy Gulfstream Park.

Others may disagree, but it seemed clear to me that as the Gulfstream card wore on, and the rain continued to fall, your horse had to be very close early, if not on the lead, to succeed. The first real indication came in the Old Hat Stakes when Misty Rosette not only survived, but also seemed emboldened by hot fractions and ran off and hid. In the next race, Go Bucky Go turned back the odds-on Superfly on the front end. In the Bonnie Miss, Wait a While was right on top of a hot pace and went on to win by "only" 14. Teammate, who was also a pace player, held on for second. Despite a slow start in the Hutcheson, Keyed Entry rushed to the lead and turned back the heavily favored and highly regarded First Samurai. Barbaro was right with the early lead on his way to winning the Holy Bull.

In the last race of the day, Einstein, who had never been even remotely close to the early lead in his life, was sent to the front by the ever-astute Rafael Bejarano and won by a pole. The only exceptions after the Old Hat, which was the fourth race, came in the off-the-turf Suwannee River Handicap, which almost doesn't count since it was switched off the grass, and the Donn.

It wouldn't be fair to Brass Hat, however, to say his victory was purely a function of the debilitating pace battle among On Thin Ice, Suave, Magna Graduate, and Pies Prospect. Certainly, the hot fractions (45.82 seconds and 1:09.40) helped. But while Magna Graduate, Suave, and On Thin Ice all succumbed to varying degrees of the staggers, it is interesting to note that Pies Prospect, who might have been 20-1 in the Donn were he not part of a three-horse Nick Zito-trained entry, easily held second. It would be more fair to consider that the fast pace that aided Brass Hat might have been balanced out by the speed-favoring nature of the sloppy surface. In any event, it is very clear now that Brass Hat, who rallied from well back into a slow pace to dominate the New Orleans Handicap in his previous start, is simply a running fool.

It also appears that in the wake of his impressive score in Saturday's Strub Stakes at Santa Anita, High Limit has also evolved into a running fool. High Limit won the Louisiana Derby last year, but that was purely a function of his enjoying an easy lead over an intensely speed-biased track. He also won the San Pasqual Handicap in his first start this year, demonstrating heretofore-unseen gameness, but the time of that race was notably lacking. High Limit's performance in the Strub, however, is difficult to criticize, and was surely the best race he has run to date. For the first time, High Limit successfully rated off the early lead. He ran reasonably fast. High Limit earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 109, the same number that Brass Hat got in the Donn, and he dominated, scoring by almost as much as the 4 3/4 lengths, the same margin of victory for Brass Hat.

Otherwise, the focus Saturday was on the 3-year-olds, specifically the upset by Keyed Entry over First Samurai in the Hutcheson; Barbaro's win in the Holy Bull; and Bob and John's victory in Santa Anita's Sham Stakes.

Even though he was beaten by the still undefeated Keyed Entry, First Samurai lost nothing in stature. The Hutcheson was a strongly run race (Keyed Entry earned a 110 Beyer), and with so many other important races down the road, it would have been silly to ask more from First Samurai at this point in time.

Barbaro got the job done in the Holy Bull, but he clearly was not as dominating as he had been on turf. The slop might have had much to do with that, and it could be that he won primarily on class. I have always believed that horses with big flat feet are suited for success on turf while horses with small, cuppy feet are suited for the slop. I don't know what kind of feet Barbaro has, but he can't have both. So the real indicator of Barbaro's dirt ability will come when he races on a fast track.

As for Bob and John, he handled a modest field as the 2-5 favorite in the Sham. But his 4 1/2-length win margin was a bit misleading, because the size of that margin was due in large part to runner-up Hawkinsville's running out of gas. Bob and John's connections correctly point out that there will be no more soft spots like the Sham for him in the future. So if you were a skeptic of Bob and John before the Sham, it is okay to remain one until he proves otherwise.