06/30/2003 12:00AM

Jury's still out on Ipi Tombe's talent

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NEW YORK - There is a belief among some handicappers that most horses that win easily really didn't win as easily as it seemed. The thinking is that, even if they are not asked for their best by their jockeys, horses will pretty much run as hard as they usually do, unless, of course, they are taken under stout restraint. And, after many years of expecting horses to improve their speed figures off victories where it looked like they had something left, I came to the conclusion that rare indeed is the easy winner who really does win easily.

This came to mind after Ipi Tombe flashed under the wire first in her first North American appearance, Saturday's Locust Grove Handicap at Churchill Downs. There is no question that Ipi Tombe was more superior than her win margin of a half-length would suggest. She spotted her field a couple of lengths coming out of the gate, which was no big deal considering she does her best running from off the pace. And, she got a huge assist from Pat Day, who contributed one of his patently patient rides. Day allowed Ipi Tombe to drop back through a strong third quarter in 23.59 seconds instead of expending reserves by asking her to hold her position, much in the same way his patience was so critical in Perfect Drift's recent upset of Mineshaft in the Stephen Foster at Churchill. But, after responding to a mild hand ride to reach the front, Ipi Tombe was noticeably throttled down the final sixteenth of a mile, maintaining her advantage on her own courage.

Just how much better Ipi Tombe was than the rest of the Locust Grove field is hard to say. Ever since American interests bought into her, and announced plans to bring her to this country, the hype machine has been working overtime. It is impossible to know exactly what she was beating when she won eight of her first 10 career starts in her native Zimbabwe and South Africa, although that is not to say really good horses cannot come from that part of the world. Hawaii, the champion turf horse of 1969, was bred in and began his career in South Africa. More recently, so did the top-class but unlucky pair of Horse Chestnut and Spook Express.

It is easier to get a line on what Ipi Tombe beat earlier this year in Dubai, where she went 3 for 3.

Without question, the race that put Ipi Tombe on the map was her victory in the Group 1 Dubai Duty Free on the Dubai World Cup undercard. Make no mistake, any time a female beats males in a race like that - and Ipi Tombe also had to overcome trouble in the Duty Free - it is an accomplishment. Look at who she beat, however: Paolini, Royal Tryst, Eventuail, Masterful, Sights on Gold, Naheef, Imtiyaz, King of Happiness, St Expedit, Itaquere Power, and Blizz Bess. The most notable from this substandard group is Paolini, who is best known here for his close sixth in last year's below par running of the Arlington Million.

In any event, Ipi Tombe's fans better hope that she is one of those rare exceptions and that she really is many lengths better than the opposition she beat in the Locust Grove, which was decidedly Grade 3 in nature. If not, she is going to have her hands full when she hooks up with the likes of Voodoo Dancer and Dublino, who both ran very well finishing one-two in Saturday's Beverly Hills Handicap at Hollywood Park.

Voodoo Dancer is one of those rare New York-based horses who is not shy about taking her game to Southern California, and who is also able to bring her "A" game there as well. The Beverly Hills marked her fifth start in California over the last two campaigns, and in a typically honest effort, Voodoo Dancer produced a powerful final quarter-mile in around 23 seconds to win by three-quarters of a length.

It was surprising to see Dublino get caught, because that has never happened to her before. But, the Beverly Hills did not unfold to her advantage, and the extremely slow pace put her closer to the early lead than she prefers.

Here's the scary thing about the Beverly Hills, and the bad news for Ipi Tombe. As well as Voodoo Dancer and Dublino ran, they aren't even the best grass mares out there. Golden Apples is working her way back and should be close to a return, and as the defending Eclipse Award winner in her division, she rates the utmost respect. And, there is Tates Creek, a program scratch from the Beverly Hills, but winner of four straight and six of her last seven. And, over that series of performances, Tates Creek has proven to be a little better than Voodoo Dancer and Dublino.