12/19/2001 12:00AM

First impressions can be faulty


PHILADELPHIA - Having an ego is a necessity for a winning player. Having too much of an ego can cost you money.

Take the case of Siphonic. The son of Siphon became a hot horse for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile when he wired the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland on Oct. 6. He won by six lengths. He got a 97 Beyer.

Siphonic had looked great under circumstances where he had to look great. At least, that is the way it seemed.

There was hardly a player who wasn't ready to bet against Siphonic in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Everybody, and I do mean everybody, whose opinion I respected decided the colt was an impostor.

Sure, Siphonic had run fast and won big. But he had gotten loose on the lead at Keeneland. Horses with otherwise shaky credentials have been winning at Keeneland under similar circumstances for years.

So, making just his third lifetime start on Oct. 27 at Belmont Park, Siphonic was a toss. Everybody was right. And wrong.

Siphonic finished third in the Juvenile at 9-1. The evidence, however, had changed.

Siphonic never got a breather for the entire 1 1/16 miles. He raced inside the whole way. He actually took the lead inside the eighth pole before giving way very late to lose by 2 1/2 lengths.

The winner, Johannesburg, has never lost a race. The second horse, Repent, came back to win the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes on Nov. 24.

With the horses racing into a brutal headwind, speed was no good on World Thoroughbred Championships Day. Neither, the evidence seemed to suggest, was the rail.

If that was all true, Siphonic had run a heroic race and had to be taken seriously in the future. What happened at Keeneland no longer seemed relevant.

Being wrong once was no reason to be wrong twice. That's a lesson some players never learn.

What I have found out as my understanding of this game evolves is that when you really dislike a horse and that horse runs a sensational race, this is a horse to take very seriously.

That the public made Officer the even-money favorite in last Saturday's Hollywood Futurity was no great surprise. After a hyped horse loses for the first time, it generally takes two more losses for the public to come to its senses.

Thus, Officer, your classic RIP (Reputation Induced Phenomenon), took more money than Siphonic on Saturday. Siphonic was no bargain at 8-5, especially after a closer look at the Breeders' Cup evidence.

There have now been 15 next-out winners from the World Thoroughbred Championships card. Only Siphonic and Swept Overboard were true rail horses. Many of the other next-out winners were outside closers on the dirt that day. Some of the next-out grass winners were speed types that may have been inhibited by the wind.

The bottom line is that after a close examination of the results, no definitive conclusion can be reached about anything. Like most people, I was pretty sure the rail and speed were no good. The evidence does not necessarily support that theory.

The point, of course, is that our first impression should not be a conclusion. Siphonic was making just his second lifetime start at Keeneland. How could any of us really know what the horse was all about?

Whatever the bias of the Belmont Park surface on World Thoroughbred Championships Day, Siphonic left a visual impression of a young, talented colt with courage. His stalking, dominating, 3 1/2-length win in the Hollywood Futurity confirmed that impression. His 103 Beyer suggests this is a colt to be taken very seriously on the road to the Kentucky Derby.

Four races, however, do not a career make. If Siphonic's young career proves anything it proves that much. And if we don't learn from our mistakes, we are, as a learned philosopher once said, doomed to repeat them.