02/03/2003 12:00AM

Impressive Medaglia d'Oro has issues

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NEW YORK - It's nice to see the horse I picked on top in last year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes now being widely hailed as one of the best horses in training, particularly after his runaway victory in Saturday's Strub Stakes at Santa Anita. It's heartwarming to know that I was at least correct about Medaglia d'Oro being a good horse, even if I was wrong about him in the pertinent races.

But, it is my nature (and one of no doubt many character flaws) that after being in on the ground floor of something good, I tend to turn on it once it becomes property of the general public. Even though I want to resist, I can feel this happening now with Medaglia d'Oro.

Yes, Medaglia d'Oro was very good in the Strub. In his first start since finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Classic, he went out and set a solid pace (shading 46 seconds to the half and 1:10 for six furlongs), and yet drew off through the stretch like a fresh horse to score by seven. As first starts of the year go, the masses would agree, you couldn't ask for anything better.

On the other hand, there are these considerations:

Medaglia d'Oro was 2-5 in the Strub for a reason. His main threat was thought to be Pass Rush, who, though visually impressive winning the San Fernando in his last start, earned a career best Beyer Figure of only 105 in that performance. The total number of graded stakes victories among the other four who opposed Medaglia d'Oro Saturday was one, and that was a Group 3 win on the turf in Ireland by Castle Gandolfo way back in October 2001. In other words, this Strub field was built to make Medaglia d'Oro look good.

Secondly, Medaglia d'Oro won the Strub in front-running fashion. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with speed. It is the name of the game in American dirt racing. But even though Medaglia d'Oro has run well from off the early pace, he seems decidedly better when an active part of the pace, and at his absolute best when on the early lead. The trouble is, when the water gets deeper, the pace usually gets hotter, and that can spell difficulty for a horse as deceptively pace-dependent as Medaglia d'Oro seems to be.

Finally, Medaglia d'Oro was suitably fresh going into the Strub. The best race Medaglia d'Oro has ever run was in the Jim Dandy last summer at Saratoga. True, his performance was enhanced by an inside speed bias that day, but he still ran very big, winning by almost 14 and earning a 120 Beyer, and the start came off a two-month layoff. Largely because of how he ran in the Jim Dandy, it was by design that Medaglia d'Oro brought a two-month layoff into the Breeders' Cup Classic. And, what he did off a layoff in the Jim Dandy was a big reason why the betting public had no qualms making Medaglia d'Oro the favorite in the Classic.

All of these considerations give cause for pause for when Medaglia d'Oro makes his next start, whether it be in the Santa Anita Handicap or the Dubai World Cup, and beyond. Medaglia d'Oro is a good horse, but he's going to have to be even better. He's not always going to be able to bring a two-month or more layoff with him, and the early paces will get hotter, because the competition will get a lot better.

For example, sooner or later, Medaglia d'Oro will have to deal with the wildly resurgent Congaree. It will likely be sooner, as Congaree also has the Big Cap or the Dubai World Cup scheduled as his next start after an authoritative victory in Sunday's San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita.

Like Medaglia d'Oro on Saturday, Congaree was impressive on Sunday - visually and against the clock. The difference here, however, and a big one it is, is that Congaree impressed against proven top-class performers such as Milwaukee Brew and Pleasantly Perfect. They both ran well in their first starts off layoffs, and will be formidable from this point forward, raising the degree of difficulty for Medaglia d'Oro even higher.

Kafwain looked good, but . . .

One other race of note at Santa Anita was Saturday's San Vicente, won impressively by Kafwain. It is an open question as to exactly what Kafwain was beating Saturday, and being that he is a son of Cherokee Run, it is fair to wonder about his effectiveness at a real distance. Nevertheless, Kafwain displayed genuine acceleration in the San Vicente, which indicates substantial evolvement from the one-paced grinder he was last year.

Kafwain is to have two more starts before advancing to the Derby, although it hasn't been decided which races those will be. Knowing that it is still early in the game, trainer Bob Baffert is wisely keeping his options open with both Kafwain and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Vindication.

However, Baffert did announce that Vindication will have only two preps for the Derby, and that should be a concern for fans of the future book Derby favorite. I don't think it's coincidental that the last 19 winners of the Derby had three or more prep races. And, if a horse who was as good as Point Given couldn't win the Derby off two preps, why should it be any different for Vindication? Notably, Baffert also trained Point Given, so this schedule for Vindication invites some skepticism.