02/04/2005 12:00AM

Indelible memories of Devil's Bag


NEW YORK - Who was the fastest 2-year-old you ever saw? First love can be blinding, so I can't claim utter objectivity when I say it was Devil's Bag, who died at Claiborne Farm Thursday morning at the age of 24. Still, 22 years after his championship season, my eyes and my numbers haven't seen one better.

In the last 30 years, just three 2-year-olds have been rated above the usual 126-pound topweight ranking on the Experimental Free Handicap. Even juvenile champions Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid received only that standard ranking. The exceptions were Arazi, given a wildly optimistic 130 in 1991; Favorite Trick, 128 when he was the 1997 Horse of the Year by default; and Devil's Bag, also pegged at 128. I'd take my chances with him at 1-5 in a three-horse race, even without getting two pounds from Arazi.

Back in 1983, no one was publishing Beyer Speed Figures, but I was hand-crafting my own version. Here's how they would translate to the current Beyer scale:

When Devil's Bag won his debut at Saratoga Aug. 20, 1983 by 7 1/2 lengths, he ran six furlongs in 1:10 3/5 and got the equivalent of an 85 Beyer. It was a nice start, and his N1X allowance follow-up in identical time eight days later got a slightly nicer 90. Then came the two races that may have been the most spectacular back-to-back juvenile performances ever.

In the Cowdin at Belmont on Sept. 28, the track was only a smidge faster than par, and reliable older horses ran predictable times before and after. If Devil's Bag were to earn another 90, he figured to complete the seven furlongs in just under 1:23. Instead, he stopped the timer in a stakes-record 1:21 2/5. Trainer Woody Stephens said he had never seen anything like it in his life, which was saying something. I gave the race an off-the-charts figure of 109. It seemed almost impossible.

Then 17 days later, he did it again. On a championship-day card at Belmont, the year before the Breeders' Cup made its debut and took over that role, Devil's Bag won the Champagne by six widening lengths over Dr. Carter with a mile in 1:34 1/5, two to four full seconds faster than older horses ran in other races that afternoon. It was another 109, the same figure I gave Slew o' Gold for winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup that day.

The sky seemed the limit, and I spent the next eight months following the colt around, waiting for him to hit new peaks, but like Favorite Trick and Arazi in later years, he never did. He ran a 105 winning his season debut at Hialeah, the Flamingo Prep, but on Feb. 20 it all began to go wrong in the Flamingo, when he folded after early pressure and ran fourth at odds of 1-9. He seemed back on track running a 108 winning the seven-furlong Forerunner at Keeneland by 15 lengths in April, but then struggled while winning the Derby Trial in the 100 neighborhood. He had not only failed to improve, but also had gone backward in the six months since the Champagne, and was retired to Claiborne Farm with a knee chip.

He had been syndicated for $36 million after his juvenile campaign, and while he was no Mr. Prospector at stud, no one who took a share took a bath. A son of Halo and the Herbager mare Ballade, and thus a full brother to Glorious Song and Saint Ballado, Devil's Bag had more success stretching out as a sire than he did as a racehorse. He got some fast sprinters, of course, such as Abaginone and Diablo, but his best progeny were middle-distance or grass horses, including his three multi-millionaires: Taiki Shuttle, who earned $4.7 million and was Japan's Horse of the Year and a French topweight in 1998; Devil His Due, who earned $3.9 million and won four Grade 1's; and Twilight Agenda, a $2.1 million earner and Grade 1 winner.

Devil's Bag will be interred at Marchmont, one of the Claiborne burial sites, where the company includes Damascus, Easy Goer, Moccasin, Numbered Account, and Unbridled. Even before his death Thursday, I had been thinking of Devil's Bag because of Lost in the Fog, the 3-year-old who has won his three starts with eye-popping Beyers of 102, 109, and 100. Those are spectacular numbers, but they've all come at six furlongs and still don't match a pair of 109's in September and October at seven furlongs and a mile.

It will, however, be almost as exciting as it was in 1984 to see what happens if they stretch Lost in the Fog out. Have we already seen his best? The lesson learned then still applies: Always be optimistic, but you never know.