09/15/2005 12:00AM

Looks like Shaniko finally gets it


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - If Shaniko were a human athlete, he would be called an underachiever, or even worse, a choker. The richer the prize, the worse he has performed.

In three starts in stakes last year, he finished ninth of 11 in the Louisiana Derby, 11th of 12 in the Northern Dancer Stakes at Churchill Downs, and last of six in the Dwyer at Belmont Park.

Given the second half the year off, he has returned in top form in 2005, albeit in allowance company, winning two races and hitting the board in two others. Which begs the question, Is he ready to run to his potential in Saturday's Kentucky Cup Classic, or is he merely going to let down his supporters again?

Consider him a changed horse. His four starts this year have been so professional, so un-Shaniko-like, I feel confident we are going to see a dramatically different stakes performance Saturday.

His last race, an 11-length romp in a three-other-than allowance at Saratoga Aug. 8, was a jaw-dropping effort. He pressured early leader Win With Beck on the lead, withstood a turn move from his principal opponent, Philanthropist, and then drew off to win in a jog. He ran 1 1/8 miles - the distance of the Kentucky Cup Classic - in 1:50.69, earning a career-best 105 Beyer Speed Figure.

I was initially skeptical of the race, knowing he headed a short field of only three opponents, but after evaluating the subsequent performances of his opponents, I believe it to be legitimate. Runner-up Philanthropist, whom he dusted, came with a close second at a Saratoga, leaping forward to a 99 Beyer Speed Figure after earning an 87 against Shaniko. And Win With Beck, who ended up getting eased after getting hounded by Shaniko, came back with a third, running a 91.

More than Beyers point to a powerful performance. So, too, do the actions of his trainer, Todd Pletcher.

As early as last year, he spoke highly of this horse, remarking about his talent and potential. That endorsement is not lost on me.

Just last week, Pletcher entered Shaniko in the Woodward Stakes, knowing that race had a short field that included a couple "rabbits" that appeared unlikely to contend late. On paper, his horse seemed to be in a prime position to pick up at least a Grade 1 placing.

Rather than run, however, he scratched Shaniko and entered him in a large field in the Kentucky Cup Classic. Obviously, there are no Saint Liams in this race, but to show so much confidence to ship this horse, who has struggled in past out-of-town stakes, speaks of the faith he has in him.

With Grand Reward, M B Sea, and others attracting support in this race, odds of 7-2 or higher would present a favorable wagering opportunity on Shaniko.

Bohemian Lady, Vicarage look good

Pletcher's Kentucky Cup hand is strong in more than one race. He also trains Bohemian Lady, who is a major player in the Turfway Park Breeders' Cup, and Vicarage, who look solid in the Kentucky Cup Sprint.

They are my choices to win their respective races. Of the two, I like Vicarage a bit more. Although he ran only an 86 Beyer in his last start, in a sixth-place finish in the Amsterdam at Saratoga, he had earned a 105 Beyer in winning his previous race, a restricted stakes.

In checking results of the Kentucky Cup Sprint going back to its inaugural running in 1994, 10 of the 11 winners of the Sprint had run a triple-digit Beyer in either of their last two starts - the exception being last year's winner, Level Playingfield.

The only starter showing that trend in this year's field is Vicarage.

Other Kentucky Cup choices

Kentucky Cup Juvenile: Cab. He was a striking winner against maidens at Saratoga last month, drawing off to win by 5 3/4 lengths despite racing greenly. He ducked in from jockey Jerry Bailey's right-handed urging, but ran straight and quickly once put to a hand ride.

Kentucky Cup Juvenile Fillies: Joint Effort. Facing Fast Deal, an impressive maiden winner, she may offer some value as the likely second choice. Although she disappointed as the favorite in her last out, finishing a distant fourth at Saratoga, she ran second in her preceding start, the Grade 3 Debutante, despite racing on less than a week's rest. Back at home in Kentucky, she should rebound.