06/03/2002 12:00AM

Look who's back among the big horses


NEW YORK - Win, lose, or draw in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, when Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem eventually faces older horses, he's going to face a handicap division that has suddenly grown in strength.

Lido Palace, winner of the Whitney and Woodward last year, is nearing his return to action, and Mizzen Mast, so impressive winning the Strub and Malibu over the winter, isn't far behind him.

Then there's Congaree, who ran a big race winning the Lone Star Handicap last week off a long layoff. It was a front-running performance that looks even bigger when you consider that he also beat a track that was biased to closers. It will be very interesting to see how Congaree and War Emblem are campaigned, and if they show up in the same races down the road. They have different owners, but they do share the same trainer, Bob Baffert.

In the wake of his compelling victory in Saturday's Massachusetts Handicap, you can also now officially add Macho Uno's name to the list of older horses who will make the major races the second half of the season a lot more difficult to win.

Macho Uno looked vulnerable on paper. He was coming off a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 111 earned in an allowance race at Gulfstream in his first start this year. But he was also coming off a 10-week layoff that seemed as big an obstacle as his solid opponents, such as Include, Mongoose, and Evening Attire.

Even trainer Joe Orseno acknowledged how important a factor the layoff was when he said before the race: "You have to be careful. You have to get your horse ready, but you don't want him to come up short, and you don't want him to peak too early. This was probably the toughest part of the whole year, these 10 weeks."

Overcoming the long period of inactivity and the solid field would have been sufficient to bestow great credit on horse and trainer. But Macho Uno did much more. He was as dominant a 1 3/4-length winner as you will ever see, because he was blocked behind the leaders from late on the far turn to midstretch. He lost all kinds of momentum checking and finally angling out. And when he at last got into the clear, Macho Uno showed a burst of speed that made it look like the three in front of him - Include, Mongoose, and John Little - were running in quicksand.

Point Given dominated his division last year, while Macho Uno was compromised by injury, so it was easy to forget how good Macho Uno has always been. He did, after all, beat Point Given in the 2000 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, which propelled him to a 2-year-old championship, and the only reason that Juvenile was decided by just a nose was because Macho Uno played around late, ducked out, and ran sideways to the wire. The kind of acceleration Macho Uno displayed Saturday is seen only in the very best racehorses. When you consider that Macho Uno was really only required to run about a sixteenth of a mile in the Mass Cap, there is reason to believe that he is capable of even better.

Suddenly, the game is getting very good.

Two examples of misjudged pace

Are jockeys today less adept at judging pace than jockeys of yesteryear? You could reach that conclusion after watching Saturday's Sheepshead Bay Handicap at Belmont Park.

Consider Refugee, who was the second choice in the 1 3/8-mile Sheepshead Bay. Over an inner turf course labeled good, but was considerably softened up by heavy thunderstorms the night before, Refugee and Jorge Chavez struck out for the lead and no attempt was made to slow her down through fast fractions of 23.51 seconds, 47.66, and 1:12.61. In Saturday's other inner turf course race, a secondary allowance race at 1 1/4 miles, the fractions were 25.09, 51.41, and 1:16.37.

Stakes horses are supposed to run faster than allowance horses, and that inner course allowance race Saturday probably represents an extreme. Refugee was asked to set a pace that was impossible to maintain, and sure enough, she finished next to last in the field of 10.

The more damning piece of evidence can be found in the trip of Sheepshead Bay favorite Sweetest Thing, ridden by Mark Guidry. Sweetest Thing finished furiously to miss by a nose after being far back early. Being far back through the first and second quarters was okay. But not in the third quarter, which, at 24.95, was the slowest quarter of the race. This is where Sweetest Thing's defeat, however narrow, was actually sealed. This was the point where Sweetest Thing should have been asked to close ranks on the field and gain a striking position. Instead, she loped along through that quarter, only gained two lengths and was still last, nearly 13 lengths behind. It was a hopeless position to be in, because every other horse who was going to kick into the tiring leaders was still well in front of her.

As it was, Sweetest Thing turned in a remarkable final three furlongs in under 35 seconds to make the finish very close. But, if she were put into better position at the right time, in the third quarter, she would have won comfortably, and she wouldn't have needed a sub-35 final three-eighths to do it.