05/21/2004 12:00AM

Kudos to Island Fashion and Azeri for taking a shot


PHOENIX - Ambition is a good thing. Wanting more is a good thing. Potentially great racehorses should do more than show up in an expected spot and do the expected.

That's why it was wonderful when Seattle Slew shipped to Southern California for the Swaps. That's why it was great to see Secretariat move to the turf. That's why it was game and exciting for the connections of Lemhi Gold to send him to Europe. That's why we like it when the big Europeans come here for the Breeders' Cup. Even if such moves do not pan out, the good usually outweighs the bad.

Even though I am generally against females facing males, there are certain instances where I can get accept it - for example, in the Breeders' Cup and in grass races. Quite a few European females have done well against males in the BC Mile and BC Turf, and in the BC Sprint as well.

So, I have no problem with the notion that Azeri might run next in the Met Mile, or that Island Fashion is expected to run in the Grade 1 Yasuda Kinen in Japan on June 6. In fact, I'm interested to see what happens.

After Azeri's tough beat in the Humana Distaff at Churchill Downs on the Kentucky Derby undercard, it would be easy for her to go back to California and just run in the same races against some of the same opposition as before. But her new trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, has a better idea. After all, she has come back from what was presumed to be a serious injury and won the Grade 1 Apple Blossom over top competition. She can enhance her legacy greatly with a big run in the Met Mile, far more so than she could by winning, say, the Hawthorne, Milady, and Lady's Secret again out West.

Do I expect her to win the Met Mile? Not really. I think she's just not fast enough. Pico Central, Strong Hope, and a few other top males are probably faster than she is early and late. But a good second or third in the Met Mile would add to her glory. And a win would be what Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Randy Johnson's perfect game last week was to him. He didn't need it to go down in history as "great," but it is his crowning achievement.

As for Island Fashion, her connections are breaking the mold. After her two Grade 1 wins, they took on males in the Santa Anita Handicap, and her second to Southern Image looks extremely good now. She probably bounced in the Apple Blossom, and now is targeting a rich mile turf race in Japan. She has so much versatility that when she returns from Japan, trainer Marcelo Polanco could run her in any major Grade 1 race on turf or dirt, culminating with the BC Distaff. She has not yet achieved as much as Azeri, but she is on a unique path. And if it doesn't work, her connections shouldn't be criticized for having the courage to try.

Smarty's 'Bid' for greatness

The comparison I've been hearing most frequently is Smarty Jones to Affirmed. That's heady praise, and like Affirmed, Smarty has shown an ability to go whenever his rider desires. That push-button, step-on-the-gas-and-get-thrown-back-in-your-seat ability is absolutely lethal.

But I'm inclined to compare Smarty to Spectacular Bid - and if you know me, you know that's saying something.

I believe Spectacular Bid was the best, most perfect horse we've ever seen. He had a wonderful machine-like precision. And the one thing Smarty does like Bid did is bury foes. Affirmed would win, but you had the feeling he was trying to be funny, like the kid playing tag who is much faster than everyone else but stays just out of their reach, smirking. Spectacular Bid wasn't like that. I felt he didn't want to win, he wanted to bury rivals. He was like Tiger Woods was in 2000 - why win by a shot when you can win by 10? Smarty has shown that same killer instinct.

The downside to this comparison, of course, is that Spectacular Bid lost the Belmont Stakes. and he's not on top of a lot of all-time bests lists because of it.

So, good as Smarty looks for the Belmont, remember that going into the 1979 Belmont it was difficult to picture a scenario in which Coastal and Golden Act would finish ahead of Spectacular Bid.

Regardless of Smarty's Belmont outcome, his Kentucky Derby run helps validate what it takes to succeed in that race. Despite many horses trying something new * added weeks off, fewer preps at age 3 - Smarty showed yet again that a horse needs plenty of furlongs in him and plenty of experience to win the Derby. He also helps prove that a horse must run fast to win it. His Beyer Speed Figures in Arkansas were lower than only those of The Cliff's Edge, Lion Heart and Quintons Gold Rush - all three of which, interestingly, were recorded at Keeneland.

Horseplayers looking for something new, or looking at inferior Beyers and extrapolated them as perhaps going forward - and I admit, I was one of them - perhaps re-learned by Smarty's Derby win that the old way is the right way.