07/21/2004 11:00PM

Distance only drawback to Magical Illusion

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ELMONT, N.Y. - I wish I could be more confident about Magical Illusion getting the distance in Saturday's Coaching Club American Oaks, because Stellar Jayne and Ashado, ostensibly the leader of the 3-year-old filly division at the moment, didn't exactly bust any stopwatches in last month's Mother Goose and are begging to be bet against.

After a brutal trip in her debut at Gulfstream, Magical Illusion returned three months later to win a 1 1/16-mile maiden route by a country mile during Belmont's opening week.

Thrust into the Acorn Stakes off that performance, she broke slowest from the rail, rushed up to contention and remained only a length off the lead in midstretch despite being under mild pressure, in what could easily be interpreted as a thoroughly promising stakes debut.

A 10-length romp in an entry-level allowance followed four weeks after the Acorn, and now the James Bond-trained Magical Illusion may be much more formidable in her second go-round with the big girls. She has some seasoning under her belt, and her pace and speed figures from the allowance are superior to what transpired in the Mother Goose. She even got a break by drawing the outside this time.

The nagging question for Magical Illusion is 10 furlongs, because her siblings include Lily O'Gold, whose best route race was a runner-up finish in the Alcibiades at age 2; five-time sprint winner Fethard; and Shah Jehan, an underachieving hanger from Team Lukas whose three wins were all sprints, along with seconds in the Withers, Long Branch, and Sir Barton at low odds.

"A lot will be determined by how they break," said Bond. "The ease and grace that our filly shows makes me believe the distance will not be a problem for her."

At 3-1, I will pay to find out.

Give me Saratoga any day

Back in February at Daily Racing Form's Handicapping Expo in Las Vegas, and again a couple of days before the Belmont Stakes, Brad Free and I were discussing how interesting it might be for us to step into each other's lives for a short period of time during the summer. He would come to Saratoga, I would go to Del Mar, and the science fiction novel "Stranger in a Strange Land" would come to life as we wrote hilarious columns about how we got lost on the way to the track, and why we pitched the proverbial shutout when we finally got there.

But after looking over the Day 2 card at Del Mar that consisted of three maiden claimers, a starter allowance excluding anyone except maiden-claiming winners, three claimers of low- to midlevel variety, and a five-horse turf feature, I'm convinced the whole thing was a terrible idea. I'm actually afraid to answer the phone for fear it will be someone from the office telling me, "We liked your proposal very much, so pack your toothbrush and Simulcast Weeklies and head for the airport."

Kicking and screaming, that is how I would head for the airport. I'm headed straight up the Northway to the foothills of the Adirondack mountains, and I will check my messages in six weeks. Can we just put this whole Del Mar versus Saratoga debate to rest once and for all? It shouldn't even be up for discussion because they wouldn't bother putting up a betting line in Vegas. From what I've seen of the entries, the big attractions at Del Mar must be the weather, the Pacific coastline, and the restaurants.

Poor Brad must be leaving voice-mails at the home office every hour on the hour begging them to please get this handicapper-swap thing going so he can hightail it out of there for a few blessed afternoons.

It's true that at Saratoga one never knows what the weather will be. A typical day will be one part hot and humid and one part hair-raising thunder and lightning with torrential rain. It could literally be pouring rain right where you're standing, and the sun could be beating down unmercifully just across the street.

Most places to go for dinner involve at least an hour wait, a rickety uncomfortable chair, and nine bucks for a cocktail in a plastic cup.

Lake George, a formidable lake, but a little smaller than the Pacific Ocean, is jammed with pot-bellied tourists in Bermuda shorts and hokey souvenir shops, and the mosquitoes who live there are big enough to throw a saddle on.

Horseplayers take it all in stride, though, because once they've been to the Spa they know it is the only summer place for top-class racing up close and personal.

That is where you can find me for the next six weeks, and woe unto anyone who tries to stop me.