02/06/2002 1:00AM

Far from vintage year for Donn


COLUMBIA, Md. - The recent history of the Donn Handicap is as classy as any race in America. While the depth of the fields has not always been the strongest, the winners rank among the top runners of the past decade.

Cigar won the race in 1995 and 1996 with Beyer Speed Figures of 114 and 117. In 1997 Formal Gold - perhaps the best, but certainly the most overlooked, horse of the 1990's - defeated Skip Away. The Beyer was 114.

Skip Away bounced back in 1998, taking the Donn in the slowest recent running - only a 109. Puerto Madero (with a Beyer of 115) easily defeated Behrens and Silver Charm in 1999. Then, in the fastest recent running, Stephen Got Even extended to a Beyer of 120, edging out Golden Missile. And last year Captain Steve (116 Beyer) won out over Albert the Great.

Two weeks ago, this year's running of the Donn looked like it might follow in these illustrious footsteps. Trainer Bobby Frankel decided to send Lido Palace, one of 2001's top handicap horses. He would face Monarchos, last year's Kentucky Derby winner, who was preparing for a big comeback - with his connections already proclaiming him favorite for Horse of the Year.

And Red Bullet - with equally vocal and optimistic connections - was on schedule to meet the challenge.

In addition, this year's run-up to the Donn featured an increasingly rare element: prerace entertainment in print. When Frankel declared that Lido Palace would run in the Donn, his colleague, John Ward, trainer of Monarchos, tried to play with Frankel's mind. Ward said he was delighted that Frankel was entering Lido Palace because the weight spread would be substantially in Monarchos's favor - and, even if Lido Palace did win the Donn, that wouldn't bother Ward because it would only make the spread even bigger when they faced each other next time out in the Santa Anita Handicap. "There'll be such a big spread between the two of us," Ward said. "I might even pay his [Frankel's] plane ticket."

Frankel didn't respond directly to Ward, but a week later he decided he would keep Lido Palace in California. His reason? He offered the excuse that the expenses of shipping to Florida would be prohibitive. He apparently decided not to take advantage of Ward's generous offer.

But Ward had little time to celebrate the defection of his principal rival. Shortly after the withdrawal of Lido Palace, Ward announced that Monarchos - after a hugely disappointing allowance prep - had sustained a minor injury and would be retired. So just that quickly, both stars were gone.

Does that make Red Bullet a cinch? Perhaps. But this horse has always been over-hyped, mostly by his own connections - and his recent loss to Sir Bear was not terribly encouraging, although his Beyer of 108 was not too bad off a layoff. Much of the remainder of the field for the Donn, however, is not proven Grade 1 caliber. Still, you have to look to beat Red Bullet.

Some of the runners in Saturday's overcrowded field appear to be outclassed. Pleasant Divorce has never run a triple-digit Beyer, and had a perfect rail trip in the Gallant Fox at Aqueduct. Mongoose impressed in a recent allowance win, but his figure of 102 will need dramatic improvement. Keats has never shown that he can run well without an easy lead, and he isn't likely to loaf along in this speed-filled field. Ubiquity also seems to need a softer pace, and he hasn't run since the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 23. His best lifetime Beyer: 106.

Among the more interesting contenders:

Kiss a Native ran a lifetime-best Beyer of 106 when he won the Fred W. Hooper on Dec. 29. After a recent turf prep he could be ready for a big effort at a big price.

Hal's Hope finished a close third in the Skip Away at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 12. His recent Beyers have improved from 95 to 104 to 107. On two other occasions he ran a 107, and in both cases his next race was a big bounce.

Traditionally ran a 116 Beyer to win the Oaklawn Handicap nearly 10 months ago - by far his best lifetime effort. But his return to the races in the Skip Away was a very disappointing sixth-place finish with a 94 Beyer. It's not likely he can improve enough to be a big factor.

Best of the Rest has had his moments, mostly at Calder, where he defeated Hal's Hope and Sir Bear last fall. He peaked with a 109 Beyer on Nov. 18, bounced to a 101 while finishing fourth in the Hooper, and could put in another big effort in the 109-111 range - which he has reached three times before.

Graeme Hall has run 110 or higher four separate times, including a 112 in the Cigar Mile back in November at Aqueduct, when he finished second to Left Bank and edged out Red Bullet by a head. If Graeme Hall is ready - and his trainer, Todd Pletcher, does not sound totally convinced - he will be tough to beat.

This year's Donn should be exciting and competitive. It will certainly be more crowded than usual. But it's not likely to make us forget Cigar, Skip Away, and Formal Gold.