02/18/2002 12:00AM

Groundhog Day for Booklet in Florida

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NEW YORK - Suddenly, I feel like I'm in my own personal version of the movie "Groundhog Day." I thought Booklet would be reeled in by Harlan's Holiday in last month's Holy Bull Stakes, and he wasn't. I was sure he would be overtaken by Harlan's Holiday in Saturday's Fountain of Youth Stakes, and he wasn't. The next time Booklet runs, most likely in the Florida Derby, I will probably again expect him to get caught by Harlan's Holiday.

Maybe Booklet will hold off Harlan's Holiday yet again in the Florida Derby, and I will have no choice but to find a way to deal with it. The Florida Derby is a sixteenth of a mile longer than the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth, and could have a slightly stronger cast of characters, so the result may be different. But, like Bill Murray in the movie, I have slowly learned something, and that is Booklet is a lot better and tougher horse than I originally thought.

Unlike the Holy Bull, when Booklet capitalized on an uncontested lead through soft fractions, he really earned his victory Saturday. Sure, he was loose on the lead again, but this time there were no free passes. He paid a premium price for that clear early lead in the Fountain of Youth in the form of demanding opening quarter and half-mile splits of 22.98 seconds and 46.96. Still, he would not cave in when confronted late by Harlan's Holiday, a colt who is also as genuine as they come.

Of course, Jorge Chavez was on Booklet and not on Harlan's Holiday. When the money's down, no one outfinishes Chavez, who wins much more than his share of close ones.

School of hard knocks for bettors

One close one that Chavez didn't win occurred just two races before the Fountain of Youth when he lost a surprising photo in an overnight race on the highly regarded 3-year-old High Star, who is also Florida Derby-bound. The circumstances that caused the close finish were noteworthy.

High Star, who had demonstrated positional speed in his previous best performances, was taken back and rated off a pace that was absurdly slow, especially in comparison to the pace of the Fountain of Youth. He was covered up behind the leaders in this mile and seventy-yard race through a quarter in 25.15 and a half in an even more ridiculous 51.80. High Star is a nice colt, but it would have taken a superhorse to overcome the position he was in.

It seems clear to me that High Star was being given an education, one that may well pay dividends in the Florida Derby, and perhaps even in the Kentucky Derby. He was being taught to eat dirt and finish strong, and High Star will be better for the experience. It was not unlike the kind of lesson that Harlan's Holiday was given in the Holy Bull, when he was taken farther off the early pace than ever before in his racing career in an attempt to teach him to finish strongly. And that education fell just a nose short of paying off in the Fountain of Youth.

I understand the horsemen's point of view here. The connections of High Star, trained by Nick Zito, and Harlan's Holiday, trained by Ken McPeek, are doing what they have to do to get their horses to the promised land of the Kentucky Derby winner's circle. But is it fair to the betting public for these, or any other prominent horses, to be given such schooling when the public's money is down? After all, Harlan's Holiday was 4-5 in the Holy Bull and High Star was 1-2 Saturday. Neither colt would have been as heavily bet as he was if the public knew that they would not take advantage of their speed.

That is especially true of High Star, who looked like he could have made the early lead Saturday running backward; if he did he probably would have won by five. But he wouldn't have learned a lot, certainly nothing as valuable as what he learned in this losing effort.