08/06/2004 12:00AM

The Cliff's Edge getting sharper


PHOENIX - For a time there, The Cliff's Edge was the bomb. He was the darling of the 3-year-old set. That is, until a huge wave named Smarty Jones rolled over him in the Kentucky Derby, and after throwing shoes around the sticky Churchill Downs oval like he was dealing cards, The Cliff's Edge seemed destined for the side of a milk carton.

Well, the Smarty wave has receded, leaving a wealth of jewels such as Sunday's Grade 2 Jim Dandy and the upcoming Grade 1 Travers lying around to be scooped up. And after a roller-coaster ride during the spring, The Cliff's Edge may be ready to put things right. It's likely impossible he can end up as champion 3-year-old, but it is quite possible he can make a big splash at Saratoga on Sunday.

The public may well flock to Medallist, so impressive when beating The Cliff's Edge in last month's Grade 2 Dwyer at Belmont. And there's no getting around it, Medallist looked super. He made the lead, dictated the tempo, and drew off when roused. It was nothing short of brilliant, as the son of Touch Gold jumped up with a Beyer Speed Figure of 112, which puts him in Smarty range. To prove it was no fluke, Medallist had gotten a Beyer Figure of 110 the time before when he romped in his previous race, the Grade 3 Withers. This is no fly-by-nighter.

But Medallist also had every advantage in the Dwyer. He was the controlling speed. He also had recency, coming off that big Withers score. The Cliff's Edge, meanwhile, had been licking his wounds after the Kentucky Derby debacle. But lost in the glow of Smarty was that, despite losing shoes, despite being well back early, struggling over the track and with traffic, The Cliff's Edge closed to be a respectable fifth. That means a bunch of nice 3-year-olds ended up behind him. Trainer Nick Zito gave him two full months to recover and resurfaced against the white-hot Medallist in the July 11 Dwyer.

So, The Cliff's Edge was short on recency (big edge, Medallist), and there was no speed to oppose Medallist early (again, huge edge, Medallist). The Cliff's Edge was again overshadowed, as Medallist drew off in grand style. But many didn't notice that The Cliff's Edge finished quite well to be a good second. His Beyer Figure of 105 was a big step back, and if you toss his Beyer in the Derby (89), his previous figure was that strong 111 he earned winning the Grade 1 Blue Grass. In other words, The Cliff's Edge has proved he can run fast.

Zito's charge does not carry the same deficits as last time. He now has a race - a good one - under his belt. He gets back to 1 1/8 miles, and that helps. And this time, Medallist may not be alone on an easy lead. He might still be the quickest, but the presence of the quick and gritty Purge likely means no walking lead, no easy pace control for Medallist.

It's disappointing that Smarty is gone. The good news is there are always those ready to at least try to fill the void. This isn't to say The Cliff's Edge is Smarty Jones. But he is a nice horse with proven ability, seemingly set up for a top effort in an important race.

Azeri's legacy intact

The strangest thing about this whole "should Azeri be racing or not" debate is the question of legacy. Many have taken trainer D. Wayne Lukas and owner Michael Paulson to task for her comeback, particularly after her three mid-season failures. But the one aspect so many harp on - an injured legacy - doesn't hold water.

Many of Azeri's fans reason that despite her smashing Grade 1 Apple Blossom win, any forthcoming failures would be like a mustache on the Mona Lisa. But that just isn't true. Look at our entire sports legacy - there have been so many great ones in all sports who either played too long or retired and came back, performing at a level lower than we were used to. But it hasn't damaged them in any way. Babe Ruth, Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Nolan Ryan, Joe Montana, Willie Mays, Pele, Wayne Gretzky, and Jack Nicklaus all played past their prime. The best current examples may be Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith. Certainly Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, and George Foreman retired only to resurface as lesser athletes, but they are in no way diminished in our minds.

It has happened in our sport. Many have raced past their prime, but when we look back on them we don't see the failings that came with age. Instead, we see them at their peak.

So while Azeri's Go for Wand win last week cemented her status as one of the great ones and for the moment quieted some of the critics, it wasn't really necessary. No matter what happens from here on out, even if they're bad losses, it will not in any way injure her reputation. The legacy is intact.