09/12/2004 11:00PM

Magistretti magnificent

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NEW YORK - All three of Saturday's Grade 1 races at Belmont Park were immensely entertaining. Ghostzapper's near race-long battle with Saint Liam was really something, and positioned him as a prime contender for Horse of the Year. And Stellar Jayne coming back after appearing beaten by Daydreaming was a testament to her will to win. But for sheer wow power, Magistretti's winning performance in the Man o' War took the day.

I understand that Man o' War runner-up Epalo was going a distance beyond his scope in this 1 3/8-mile race, and you didn't have to listen to his connections after the race to know that. All you had to do was scrutinize Epalo's past performances to conclude that against high-class company, he may be found wanting late at this trip. That, however, should not detract from Magistretti's victory, especially considering the way he won.

Edgar Prado is rightfully regarded as one of the best big-race jockeys in the nation. But with just under three-eighths of a mile to go in the Man o' War, those who made Magistretti second choice in the wagering were ready to draw and quarter the rider. Prado had Magistretti along the temporary rail, hopelessly blocked behind a wall of horses with a mount who was ready to go right now. Prado said after the race that Magistretti grabbed the bit and took him there. Everyone else in the field who mattered was getting the jump on Magistretti. It seemed that even if he did finally get some racing room, Magistretti wouldn't have enough time to rebuild his momentum.

At the top of the stretch, as Epalo was attempting to pull the rug out from under his field, Prado and Magistretti muscled their way to the outside to finally get clear. At that point, Magistretti was conservatively eight lengths away from Epalo.

In 1 3/8-mile races on the Widener course at Belmont, there is no point of call or fractional time taken at the quarter pole at the top of the stretch. It is just a vagary of that particular distance. What we know is Magistretti made up approximately five lengths in a final three-eighths of a mile timed in 36.48 seconds, and during the first of those final three furlongs, Magistretti wasn't able to do any running because he was totally blocked. We also know that through a final eighth of a mile run in 12.51, Magistretti made up 5 1/2 lengths. So, considering the running Magistretti did from the quarter pole to the eighth pole, we can make an educated guess that he went his last quarter-mile in less than 23 seconds. That's sensational, particularly considering that the turf was still yielding after heavy mid-week rains. Magistretti, who finished third in the 1 1/4-mile Arlington Million in his first U.S. start, is obviously a leading contender for the 1 1/2-mile Breeders' Cup Turf. But so are a bunch of other European horses who were considered substantially better than Magistretti in Europe.

After outfinishing Saint Liam by a neck in the Woodward, Ghostzapper received a lot of credit for producing a positive result in his first battle with a good horse. That isn't completely accurate. Last year, when he was still confined to sprint races - doesn't that seem like ages ago? - Ghostzapper was involved in a stretch battle at Saratoga with the formidable closing sprinter Clock Stopper, and outfinished him as well. In any event, I wonder what might have happened in the Woodward had Saint Liam made it possible for his jockey, Edgar Prado, to ride him properly.

Saint Liam, who was coming off an April layoff, drifted out considerably in the stretch. Yes, he made Ghostzapper's task a little more difficult by floating him out. But instead of getting into his mount to get the most out of him, Prado had to be concerned with keeping Saint Liam as straight as he could so that he wouldn't cause a foul. With the win margin as tight as it was, it's fair to wonder if the outcome might not have been different had Saint Liam kept a straight course and had Prado been able to ride him aggressively rather than defensively.

Florida Derby date move a bad idea

Last week, management at Gulfstream Park announced that the 2005 Florida Derby has been moved from its regular spot on the second Saturday of March to the first Saturday in April. I can see why Gulfstream management would do this in an effort to extend the prime time of its meet, especially next year, when the facility will still be in the process of being rebuilt. I can also see how Gulfstream management can view this as an opportunity to increase the importance of the Fountain of Youth by moving it to March. But in the greater scheme of things, I think this change will only serve to diminish the importance of the Florida Derby.

With all due respect to the other Kentucky Derby preps run in March, the Florida Derby, in its old spot, was the most important Derby prep of that month. Now it will be merely one of six final-stage Derby preps to be run in a 15-day span. If the other final Derby preps keep their relative positions on the calendar, the Florida Derby will be run a week before the Santa Anita and Illinois derbies, and two weeks before the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, and Arkansas Derby.

While there may be the occasional horse desperate for graded stakes earnings who will run in the Florida Derby and then in one of the latter three, no serious Derby candidate will run in more than one of these races. So, the end result will be that these races, including the Florida Derby, will become watered down even further. And if Gulfstream management thinks that nice weather and a $1 million purse is all it takes to keep every serious Derby candidate in Florida until April, it should know that the Wood, the Blue Grass, and the Arkansas Derby, the races affected most by this date switch, all have rich purses and are run in decent-to-excellent climates. In fact, some horsemen might prefer to have their Derby candidates have their final preps over the surfaces at Aqueduct or Keeneland rather than a new surface at Gulfstream.