10/03/2004 11:00PM

Euros now have a turf horse to fear

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Kitten's Joy stamped himself a legitimate contender for the Breeders' Cup Turf with an impressive win against older horses in last Saturday's Joe Hirsch Turf Classic.

NEW YORK - Despite sensational victories by Pico Central and Sweet Catomine, an admirable display of determination by Funny Cide, and all the other major stakes racing that took place last weekend, one performance stood out above all the others. That was the victory by Kitten's Joy in Saturday's at Belmont Park.

Even for a colt who was just a head away from being 8 for 8 on grass, and whose merits were so obvious that he was a strong second choice in the betting, this particular display by Kitten's Joy was still a head-turner. Kitten's Joy was so freakishly impressive in what was his first start against older horses, and first attempt at a distance as far as 1 1/2 miles, that we here in this country may no longer have to fear any horse Europe may send over for the Breeders' Cup Turf.

Magistretti - the same Magistretti who emerged from a third-place finish in the key-race Arlington Million to be the most visually impressive winner you could ask for in the Man o' War - was the favorite in the Hirsch, and he turned for home with a clear lead on Kitten's Joy. Yet Kitten's Joy, despite racing on the wrong lead, made him look so helpless the way he blew right past him that Magistretti's trainer, Patrick Biancone, is now thinking twice about taking on Kitten's Joy again in the Breeders' Cup.

Dale Romans, the trainer of Kitten's Joy, made a case after the Hirsch that his colt, already a top contender for champion turf horse, should also be considered for champion 3-year-old. He has a point in that last Saturday Kitten's Joy became the only 3-year-old to beat older horses in a meaningful spot, but I don't agree. The Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Travers, and Breeders' Cup Classic are the races that make champion 3-year-olds. At the same time, any discussion of this year's best 3-year-olds better include Kitten's Joy early on, for he is the best American 3-year-old turf specialist in many years. In the meantime, Kitten's Joy earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 114, which is 1 1/2 points better than the average winning Beyer in the Breeders' Cup Turf since 1990. And the scary thing is, Kitten's Joy is only going to get better.

Here are thoughts about some of the weekend's other major events:

* It will be very interesting to see what the connections of Pico Central decide to do regarding the Breeders' Cup Sprint, because in the wake of Pico Central's overwhelming score in Saturday's Vosburgh at Belmont, supplementing Pico Central to the Sprint for $200,000 is now an even worse gamble than it normally would be. Pico Central now boasts Grade 1 victories this year in the Carter, Metropolitan Mile, and Vosburgh, and on Saturday trounced Speightstown, who was his primary rival for a divisional title, as well as last year's Breeders' Cup Sprint winner, Cajun Beat. One would think the question of champion sprinter has been answered. But Speightstown, whose three graded stakes wins this year all came in Grade 2 events, could rebound in the Sprint, because he can run a lot better than he did finishing third Saturday. And if he wins the Sprint, with or without Pico Central in there, he will still have a lot of support for a divisional title. Wrong as it may be, many Eclipse Award voters put extreme emphasis on the Breeders' Cup, and petulantly penalize horses who don't compete in it, for whatever reason. This is not lost on Gary Tanaka, the owner of Pico Central, and may be the only reason why he is still thinking about supplementing.

* Trainer Barclay Tagg has Funny Cide about as good as he can be right now. Considering he was wide every step of the way and right on top of a debilitating pace, Funny Cide's second in the Saratoga Breeders' Cup may have been his best effort since his Preakness last year. In Saturday's Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, Funny Cide demonstrated a will to win that can often compensate for a deficiency of talent. For an opposite example, check out Perfect Drift, who was second again in Saturday's Hawthorne Gold Cup. However, it is essential, even in the face of the warm and fuzzy feeling Funny Cide seems to give so many people, to put this Gold Cup in proper context. It was one of the weakest Gold Cups in years, and became even more so when Love of Money turned in a non-effort, and Evening Attire showed that, despite his win in the 2002 Gold Cup, he is more effective at other tracks. Funny Cide edged Newfoundland, who when up against top handicap horses in the Whitney and Woodward in his last two starts was beaten nearly 10 and slightly more than 18 lengths.

* Fans and the connections of Spinaway and Matron winner Sense of Style better be very afraid of Sweet Catomine, who backed up her Del Dar Debutante win with an overwhelming victory in Saturday's Oak Leaf Stakes at Santa Anita. It's not that Sweet Catomine ran so much faster than Sense of Style has been running. In fact, her winning Beyer of 89 is a couple of points shy of Sense of Style's Matron. It is the way Sweet Catomine won, with a sweeping, wide, sustained run while all the time giving the strong impression that she wasn't even scratching the surface of her ability. Sense of Style is very good, but she has never given me that feeling.