01/08/2007 12:00AM

In good company, even failing

Email

Scientists can now cite at least three definitive signs that global warming is the real deal: holes in the ozone layer, increased melting of the polar ice caps, and the appearance of a Belmont Stakes winner on the Aqueduct inner track.

Racing on the much-maligned inner track the first week in January is usually a steady diet of races like Friday's fourth, where statebred maiden claimers with last-race Beyer Speed Figures of 27, 25, and 10 ran 1-2-3 in a six-furlong race timed in 1:14.51. Yet two hours later there was Jazil, making his first start since winning the 138th Belmont a mere 29 weeks and six days earlier in only slightly warmer weather.

That it was a bizarrely unseasonable 56 degrees at The Big A on Friday was only part of the reason that Jazil became the first winner of an American classic later to race over the inner track. (Two others, 1993 Preakness winner Prairie Bayou and 2004 Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones, prepped over the inner track before their Classic triumphs.) Jazil, sidelined since the Belmont with a bruised cannon bone, was training at Palm Meadows in Florida last month pointing for a return at Gulfstream. He returned to his stall at Belmont on Christmas Eve, however, because of concerns that the equine herpesvirus outbreak in Florida could interfere with plans to send him to Dubai for the World Cup in March.

Prairie Bayou and Smarty Jones were voted champion 3-year-olds the years of their classic victories, but are far from the only champions to have raced on the oval known for its inside-speed bias and unique past-performance symbol of a dot inside a square. In fact, by my very unofficial count, an astounding total of 15 Eclipse Award winners have raced over Aqueduct's winterized inner track since it opened in 1975.

The first was the five-length winner of a mile-and-70-yard maiden race on Dec. 20, 1976, who never won another race on dirt. Once switched to the turf, however, Johnny D. won 6 of 8 turf starts the following year and was the nation's champion grass horse of 1977.

A similar transformation occurred with the only inner-track runner ever elected to racing's Hall of Fame. A 3-year-old son of Mo Bay finished 12th at 76-1 in his racing debut on the inner track on Jan. 16, 1982 and ninth in a $45,000 claiming race there 11 months later. That was his last start on dirt, and four months later Flatterer won the first of 16 steeplechase races that brought him four consecutive Eclipses.

Five of the other Eclipse winners who tried the inner at some point were champion sprinters (Candy Eclair, Dave's Friend, Gallant Bob, Guilty Conscience, and What a Summer), but the honor roll also includes two champion 3-year-old fillies (Xtra Heat and Wayward Lass), an older filly (Proud Delta), a grass filly (Soaring Softly), and two older males (Vanlandingham and Left Bank).

Can Jazil become the 16th inner-track performer to be named a champion? He begins 2007 as the only active winner of a Triple Crown race this side of Funny Cide, and as about the fifth-ranked older dirt horse in training, behind Invasor, Lava Man, Discreet Cat, and Premium Tap. He was no match for Barbaro, finishing a distant fourth in the Derby, and skeptics view him as a plodder who caught a weak Belmont field lacking the Derby and Preakness winners. Those of us who fell for him as a goofy maiden at Aqueduct more than a year ago think he has a genuine, unusual late kick that stamps him as potentially something more.

On the other hand, at this moment he remains eligible for a two-other-than allowance, the condition at which he failed as the 2-5 favorite in Friday's eighth race at Aqueduct. Just as he was last of 20 early in the Derby and last of 10 into the first turn of the Belmont, he trailed his five rivals early yesterday, then swung out and ran a little but fell 2o1/4 lengths short of catching second choice Take the Bluff, who led all the way. It was a useful return and about what trainer Kiaran McLaughlin had predicted before the race.

"If the track is speed-biased and we finish second, we will all understand that," Kiaran McLaughlin told Daily Racing Form's Dave Grening in Friday's editions.

And if it's any further consolation, Candy Eclair, Dave's Friend, Flatterer, Gallant Bob, Guilty Conscience, Prairie Bayou, Proud Delta, Soaring Softly, Vanlandingham, Wayward Lass, What a Summer, and Xtra Heat all lost races over the inner track too.