07/26/2001 12:00AM

Five reasons Albert is no sure thing


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - No sooner had we settled in then here comes the first surprise rain of the meet, which turned Saratoga's main track into a sea of slop Thursday morning.

Hopefully, this isn't a sign that things will be like last year, when dozens of turf races were rained off the grass during the first three weeks of the meet.

If opening day was any indication, and the track plays similarly after it dries out, the inside paths will be a lot livelier than they were at Belmont. There were five sprint races on Wednesday, and four of them went to rail-skimming winners. Three of them were front-runners, including both divisions of a 5 1/2-furlong dash for 2-year-old maidens.

The surface, which had been referred to by some observers as a "plowed field" prior to opening day, was much closer to a paved highway by first post. Running times approached a full second faster than par at both the pace call and the finish. To put it another way, Mayakovsky's time of 1:03.32 in the first baby race eclipsed a 54-year-old track record, and the "slower" division, won by Truman's Raider, went in a sprightly 1:03.68.

Taking track speed into account, Touch Love's Schuylerville score in 1:11.12 comes up slow. That time is right around the average for the past dozen or so renewals of that Grade 2 sprint, but everything else on the day went several ticks faster than the norm. My homemade Quirin-style figures came up 104-99, reflecting the fact that Touch Love's visually impressive move along the inside was accomplished through an unremarkable last quarter in 25.93 seconds. Probably not a "key" race.

The Graveyard of Favorites tag gets its first test of the season in Saturday's $750,000 Whitney Handicap.

Albert the Great figures to be odds-on, after winning the Suburban and Brooklyn by open lengths at Belmont. If he gets beat, there a number of factors that wise-guys like yours truly will point to:

* His worst race ever came in the 1 1/8-mile Jim Dandy on this track, immediately after a lifetime top Beyer at Belmont in the Dwyer. Once again, he is going 1 1/8 miles at Saratoga, after moving to a new top of 119 in the Suburban.

* The Suburban improved Albert the Great's record at Belmont to six wins in seven starts, the only loss coming in the one-mile Jerome after an insanely fast pace duel that featured a second quarter that went in 21.60 seconds. Away from Belmont, though, he has won twice from 11 starts.

* While Albert the Great has banked over $2 million, he is just 1 for 5 in Grade 1 races.

* He breaks from the outside with a short run to the first turn.

* He gives away anywhere from nine to 12 pounds to the field.

Having said all that, of the three most likely upsetters - Lido Palace, Pleasant Breeze, and Unshaded - only Lido Palace doesn't seem like a stretch.

Pleasant Breeze has won at least once at Saratoga each of the past three years, but he has a 1-for-6 record when beginning a new form cycle, and the Whitney will be his first start in 10 weeks.

Unshaded snatched the Travers away from Albert the Great in the final strides last summer, but sustained a tendon injury in that race. He has yet to show his best form in three starts since coming in the spring - a workmanlike allowance win, followed by a pair of dull fifth-place finishes in the Stephen Foster and the Suburban.

Lido Palace is another story. His first two starts in the U.S. have produced runner-up finishes in the Hawthorne Gold Cup and the Suburban, with 114-116 Beyers. In the Hawthorne Derby, he beat the razor-sharp Guided Tour by 7 1/2 lengths. In the Suburban, it took a career-best figure from Albert the Great to beat him, and he showed some good alley-fighting instincts to edge Pimlico Special and Mass Cap winner Include for second.

A Day kind of race

Also on the card is the Grade 1 Test. I don't know whether Nasty Storm is good enough to win this race, but she has Pat Day at the helm, and this race has "Pat Day" written all over it.

Day rides the seven-furlong sprints at Saratoga as well or better than any rider on earth, especially when he figures to be outsprinted early behind a hotly contested pace, and especially when he's on a horse with route-conditioning "bottom" like Nasty Storm.

There are only three fillies in the Test who have visited triple-digit Beyerland, and along with Xtra Heat and Victory Ride, Nasty Storm is one of them, having done so winning the 1 1/16-mile Dogwood in her most recent start on dirt. She comes off a fade on the turf in the Regret, also at 1 1/16 miles, and was a good second in the seven-furlong Spinaway on this track last year.