09/08/2002 11:00PM

Lido shuffled home awfully slow

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NEW YORK - You might think that when a 2-5 shot, a 4-5 shot, and a very logical third choice win, the racing is ho-hum and bereft of surprises. Not so in the case of the three Grade 1 races run at Belmont Park on Saturday.

Lido Palace, the 2-5 choice, didn't win the Woodward Stakes nearly as convincingly as everyone expected. Nor did he win it like a horse willing to capitalize on a golden opportunity. The handicap division is severely depleted now that Street Cry and Left Bank are out of the picture, but on Saturday, Lido Palace did not look like an heir apparent ready to seize control.

Instead, Lido Palace surprisingly had all he could do to take the measure of Gander, a New York-bred, and Express Tour, a miler who runs well only occasionally. Lido Palace was put to the whip on the far turn, and it took almost every bit of the Belmont stretch for him to get up.

Maybe Lido Palace didn't like being close to the strong early pace. He prefers to sit farther back early and make one run.

Maybe Lido Palace didn't like being down on the rail, which is where he was for the first seven of the Woodward's nine furlongs. He has been outside of horses in his best races in this country.

Maybe Lido Palace is the type of horse who just doesn't win by a lot, even if he has a huge advantage over the competition on paper, which was the case Saturday. After all, his largest winning margin has been 2 1/2 lengths, which happened in his native Chile back in 2000.

Maybe all of that is true. But one thing Lido Palace's supporters cannot explain away is the final time he posted in the Woodward. He completed the distance in 1:47.75, which was .63 seconds slower than it took Imperial Gesture to turn back a game Take Charge Lady in the Gazelle Handicap for 3-year-old fillies two races earlier.

It should be noted right here that Belmont is a funny track. The high sand content in the main track means the surface tends to dry out very quickly, and as a result, it gets slower. This is especially true on clear, dry days like Saturday.

But, the Belmont main track is always watered very heavily before big stakes races, which speeds it up. And, since the Woodward came after a turf race, the Man o' War Stakes, the main track was probably watered extra heavily. In other words, the surface for the Woodward was at least as fast as it was for the Gazelle. If anything, it might have even been a little faster. So, the comparatively slow final time of the Woodward is cause for real concern for Lido Palace fans.

A strong group of sophomore fillies

As for the Gazelle, Imperial Gesture's front-running victory confirmed her monstrous allowance win at Saratoga two weeks earlier, and it made clear that Take Charge Lady, who had not raced since May 25, will be a force from here on out.

The surprisingly strong Gazelle also raises an interesting notion that this group of 3-year-old fillies, which also includes Kentucky Oaks and Alabama winner Farda Amiga, may prove to be every bit the equal of their most accomplished elders when they hook up for real late next month in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Azeri and Summer Colony are unquestionably the two best older females in training. But Azeri raised concerns when she refused to rate last time out in the Clement Hirsch, and her recent speed figures haven't been compelling. And, while Summer Colony is very good, especially at 1 1/4 miles, it's fair to wonder if she's quite as effective at the Distaff distance of 1 1/8 miles.

A big surprise in the Gazelle, at least in terms of the tote board, was the empty performance by the 7-5 favorite, Bella Bellucci. Bella Bellucci's slow start is being used as an excuse for her distant third-place finish. But, if she was anything close to the filly who was a fine third after a dead-rail trip in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, or when she was so impressive winning the Comely last April, a simple slow start wouldn't have caused her to be beaten 8 1/2 lengths. There has to be something else going on with her.

Not even turtle pace could stop him

There certainly wasn't much going on in the early stages of the Man o' War, as Balto Star walked on a clear early lead through numbing fractions of 51.06 seconds and 1:16.02. In fact, the first four finishers essentially went around the track 1-2-3-4, and how often do you see that in a major turf race? Like, never.

The only significant change in the running order was a critical one, however, as With Anticipation, the 4-5 favorite and the picture of single-minded determination yet again, managed to run down Balto Star late.

Who knows what will happen with With Anticipation when the really big guns come over from Europe for the Breeders' Cup Turf? He may not do any better than his seventh-place finish in the Turf last year. But even if that proves to be the case, it should not detract from his truly fine achievement of finishing first in the United Nations, Sword Dancer, and Man o' War, in succession, two years in a row.