02/21/2005 12:00AM

Madcap up, Bear Fan down

Madcap Escapade's Shirley Jones win indicates she's in for a big year.

NEW YORK - Madcap Escapade and Bear Fan were both strongly favored in two Grade 2 sprint stakes on Saturday, but after their performances, it is clear they are horses going in opposite directions. Madcap Escapade, miles the best in Gulfstream's Shirley Jones Handicap, is going straight to the top, while Bear Fan looks to be going south after staggering home eighth in Laurel's Barbara Fritchie Handicap.

Madcap Escapade is an inspiring and much-needed member of an older filly and mare division that took a serious hit in quality with the retirements of Azeri, Sightseek, and Storm Flag Flying, to name a few. She was always on the short list of possible successors to those terrific mares. Even in an injury-shortened campaign last year at 3, she was brilliant, winning 4 of 5 starts. But with the way she won Saturday, it seems Madcap Escapade is determined to fill the void, and fill it with championship-like flair.

A big reason why Madcap Escapade was so impressive in the Shirley Jones was her terrible start. She broke slowly, something she has done on occasion in the past, but then swerved in when Society Selection stumbled badly next to her. As a result, she spotted the rest of the field about four lengths.

As it turned out, that wasn't remotely close to enough of a handicap. In a display of quickness you don't see every day, Madcap Escapade was nearly four lengths in front after a quarter-mile in 22.65 seconds. Through the stretch, Madcap Escapade toyed with Alix M. Okay, Alix M may not be a household name, but she galloped in the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint over the track just three weeks earlier, meaning that her excellent current form provided a good means by which to measure Madcap Escapade.

Another way to measure Madcap Escapade is her final time of 1:22.06, which established a track record and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 106 - a figure she can certainly build on, considering she was coming off a 10-month absence.

The big question with Madcap Escapade will be, How much distance can she handle? The truth is, she doesn't have to negotiate a step beyond nine furlongs, the distance of the Breeders' Cup Distaff and many other top stakes in her division, and she gave every indication last year that this trip is within her scope. Maybe it's easy to forget because she has so much speed, but last April, Madcap Escapade won the Grade 1 Ashland around two turns at Keeneland over eventual 3-year-old filly champion Ashado. She also ran a winning race when third in her only defeat, the Kentucky Oaks, considering she went too fast early - she set fractions of 23.29, 46.00, and 1:09.99 over a muddy track - and came out of the race with a hip fracture.

The outlook for Bear Fan, one of last year's two best female sprinters, isn't nearly as encouraging. In fact, the warning signs were there even before she succumbed to pace pressure Saturday, applied by the eventual winner of the Fritchie, Cativa. Bear Fan was flat outrun when a soundly beaten second at 2-5 last month in the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint, and the 87 Beyer Figure she earned in that race was her lowest in 20 months. But, the 73 Beyer she got Saturday in the worst defeat of her career was the lowest of her career and may well suggest that, at 6, Bear Fan has simply had enough.

Why Gill didn't deserve Eclipse Award

It's a surprise that the debate still rages over whether Michael Gill deserved the Eclipse Award for outstanding owner of 2004. But since it does, it seems like it is past time to inject some facts into the argument. According to this paper's database, for all the races Gill's horses ran in and won last year, his horses started in only 29 graded stakes races in 2004, and won only one of them, that being the Grade 3 Miss Preakness with Forest Music.

With that kind of record at the highest levels of the game, if you are to still make a legitimate case that Gill merited an Eclipse Award, then he had better have won a lot of other races in places where it matters the most, namely in New York and Southern California. He didn't. At the Santa Anita meet that ran from Dec. 26, 2003, through April 18, 2004, Gill won with 12 of 87 starters. At the subsequent Hollywood Park meet, he won with just 1 of 24 starters. He didn't have a starter at Del Mar, or at Fairplex, or at the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita, and he lost with his one starter at Hollywood's fall meet. So in total, Gill's horses won 13 of 112 starts in Southern California for a win rate of 11.6 percent, far below his total 2004 win rate of 16.8 percent.

In New York, at the Aqueduct meet that began on Dec. 3, 2003, and ran through March 7, 2004, Gill's horses won 4 of 47 starts. At the subsequent Aqueduct meet, he went 1 for 10. At the subsequent Belmont Park meet, he went 1 for 4. At Saratoga, Gill won with 9 of 60 starters. He went 0 for 3 at the Belmont fall meet, 0 for 8 at the Aqueduct fall meet, and is 0 for 5 at the current Aqueduct winter meet. In total, Gill won with 15 of 137 starters in New York, for a win rate of just 11 percent, also far below his total 2004 win rate.

The combined 28 New York and California races won by Gill represented only 5.7 percent of the total number of races he won in 2004.

So let's see. Gill didn't win a Grade 1 or Grade 2 race in 2004, and won just one Grade 3. And, he barely won races of any sort in Southern California and New York. Does that really sound like an Eclipse Award winner to you?