07/17/2005 11:00PM

Hold off on Lost in the Fog's coronation

Lost in the Fog wins the Carry Back, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 116.

NEW YORK - I don't burn ants with the sun through a magnifying glass, and I don't pick the wings off butterflies. I don't kick cute little puppies in their stomachs, and I don't cut in front of kindly old grandmothers at the checkout line in the supermarket.

And contrary to popular perception, I don't hate Lost in the Fog. It's just that everyone thinks I do.

This is probably why: In last week's debut edition of the new World Thoroughbred Championships Poll, for which I am a voter, Lost in the Fog owned the top ranking in the Breeders' Cup Sprint Division. That is also the position Lost in the Fog has held in the weekly TVG Speed Zone Sprint poll, for which I am also a voter, and which was instituted recently because TVG is the sponsor of this year's Breeders' Cup Sprint. But my opinion was in the distinct minority on both voting panels. In last week's Watchmaker Watch, my weekly divisional rankings that appear in this paper, I had Lost in the Fog at No. 7 in the sprint division, and only just then advancing from the 10 spot.

Dissent is a long way from hatred. So is skepticism. And despite Lost in the Fog's unblemished record of eight wins from as many starts, and eight triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures to go along with them, I believe his record still invites a good deal of healthy skepticism. And I don't believe his record right now withstands real scrutiny.

The biggest knock on Lost in the Fog is that he hasn't beaten anything, a point even his most ardent admirers concede. But a review of the fields Lost in the Fog has beaten in his six stakes victories this year shows that his competition was even weaker than many realize.

Of the 36 horses Lost in the Fog has faced this year (he faced one horse twice), 20 had no prior success in a stakes race of any type. Only four of those 36 horses were graded stakes winners, and they won a grand total of five graded stakes races. Those graded stakes winners were Proud Accolade (Champagne and Hutcheson), Survivalist (Gotham), Straight Line (Iroquois), and Evil Minister (Sapling). Lost in the Fog did face 12 winners of other types of stakes races, but most of those stakes wins came in restricted, statebred, or overnight stakes events. The combined victory total for the 36 horses Lost in the Fog faced this year at the time he raced against them was 80 wins from 209 starts, which means the horses Lost in the Fog beat this year had already lost a whopping 62 percent of their starts.

Lost in the Fog fans will counter that it's not his fault that hardly any creditable horses have shown up to race against him, and that he more than compensated for that by posting fast speed figures. Although Lost in the Fog has been the beneficiary of brilliant management and race-placement by trainer Greg Gilchrist, it certainly does matter who you race against. I remember vividly how the racing public failed to embrace Seattle Slew even after he swept the 1977 Triple Crown, and that was entirely because the 3-year-old crop he dominated was terrible. Of course, this was at a time when truly great horses were not nearly as scarce as they are today, which may explain why philosophies have changed so much. But it wasn't until Seattle Slew was a 4-year-old and beat a great horse like Affirmed that he was acknowledged as a true great.

As for Lost in the Fog being a very fast horse, I won't even get into the subject of how horses tend to earn big figures in optimal circumstances over weak competition they dominate, because that is too subjective. The fact is, up until Lost in the Fog earned a Beyer Figure of 116 winning the Carry Back on July 10, there were three 3-year-olds who had actually earned higher Beyer Figures sprinting than he did: Surf Cat (114), More Smoke (112), and the late Egg Head (112). Moreover, while earning eight straight triple-digit Beyers is a nice way to begin one's career, it is by no means unprecedented. In the mid 1990's, the sprinter Lite the Fuse earned triple-digit Beyers in the first 15 starts of his career, and in 20 of 21 races overall. Lite the Fuse, who was never a champion, was a Grade 1 winner by his sixth start, something Lost in the Fog has yet to accomplish, and he faced older opponents from the beginning of his career, which is also something Lost in the Fog has yet to do.

That last point makes it particularly amazing to me that so many people are so eager to build Lost in the Fog his own wing in the Hall of Fame. Forget about how hard Lost in the Fog had to work to beat Egg Head in the Riva Ridge while riding the crest of a strong speed bias, or about how slowly he came home in the Swale (he went his final eighth in 13.25 seconds). Over the years there have been so many flashy 3-year-old sprinters who were exposed once they tackled older horses that their names could fill the Grand Canyon. Consider this: There have been 275 starters in the history of the Breeders' Cup Sprint, and 79, or 28.7 percent, have been 3-year-olds. There have been four 3-year-old winners in the 21 runnings of the Sprint, or 19 percent, which means 3-year-olds have under-performed against older horses in the most important sprint race in America. It seems to me the prudent course of action is to reserve judgment at least until Lost in the Fog faces very good older sprinters like Pico Central, Saratoga County, and Forest Danger.

But if Lost in the Fog is as successful against top older sprinters as he has been against the patsies he has faced so far, then he will have finally earned the plaudits that have already been thrown his way. And then, I will tip my hat to him.

But not until then.