02/28/2002 1:00AM

More pace will help Giant Gentleman


ARCADIA, Calif. - One of handicapping's great pleasures is digesting the diverse analyses that result from the same piece of information. When two other speed horses - Sky Jack and Western Pride - jumped into the Santa Anita Handicap field, it was widely perceived that their participation somehow compromised the chances of Giant Gentleman.

The opinion could not be more misguided. The mistaken belief was that Giant Gentleman, because he is fast, is a horse that needs the lead.

"He's not remotely close to being a horse like that," trainer Brent Sumja says. "He's not a need-the-lead type of horse, he's a horse that has natural speed that will keep him out of trouble."

Giant Gentleman, despite certain compromise at 1 1/4 miles, is the most likely winner of the Santa Anita Handicap. Oddly enough, he benefits from the addition of Sky Jack and Western Pride to the lineup.

Without those two front-runners, Giant Gentleman would be everyone's target. It happens frequently in major stakes that have a conspicuous front-runner who figures to be loose. Sensing the speed may not stop, other riders often make premature moves at the leader. If Giant Gentleman were loose on the lead Saturday, be assured someone would attack at the five-eighths, someone else attack at the half, another at the three-eighths.

Under those circumstances, Giant Gentleman would have had to set the pace, fight wave after wave of challenges, and only then outrun his pedigree. After all, he is by sprint sire Montbrook. With Western Pride and Sky Jack both in the field, however, there will be less urgency from opposing riders. Rather than moving early, most are likely to allow the race to unfold naturally.

Most believe Western Pride cannot stay 1 1/4 miles against top-class competition. His only victory this winter was over a racetrack blatantly biased to speed on Jan. 12. Western Pride's effect on the Big Cap is significant, however. He assures the race will be run at a true clip, and Giant Gentleman will not have to set the pace.

Then there is Sky Jack. If the Big Cap were 14 months ago, before he was injured, Sky Jack would have a genuine chance to go wire to wire. That was the then, this is now. There remains hope Sky Jack can resume his position as the leading older California-bred, and his narrow loss in the fastest mile of the meet may suggest he has maintained his speed. He has not.

Sky Jack set the pace Feb. 9, his first start since late 2000. But his brilliance was missing. Sky Jack failed to produce the killer speed he once possessed - an opening half-mile in 46-and-change; six furlongs in 1:10-and-change. In his comeback, however, Sky Jack went 47.07, 1:11.15. Slow. This was not the same Sky Jack who once ran a 122 Beyer. This Sky Jack was one year older and at least three ticks slower.

What difference does it make? Plenty. When older horses lose their speed, it rarely is a good thing. Maybe Sky Jack needed the race. A fresh horse is generally expected to show speed and tire, not vice-versa. Sky Jack earned a pace figure that barely equaled par for a two-other-than allowance, much less a graded stakes.

Barring overnight improvement, Sky Jack might not be able to keep pace with the Big Cap fractions that will be set by Western Pride. That leaves Giant Gentleman in the perfect trip, alone in second behind a suspect front-runner. If Western Pride carries the field to the head of the lane before he falters, Giant Gentleman will have first run, with only three-sixteenths of a mile between him and his first Grade 1.

But as Sumja said: "He is a Montbrook, and it's the last two poles that I'm scared of."

A longshot worth a second look

The Big Cap principals are the speed horses, but one deep closer has an upset chance. Seinne, 30-1 on Daily Racing Form handicapper Mike Watchmaker's morning line, sneaks into the wide-open field as a forgotten horse. He shouldn't be. When he finished a no-threat fifth in the San Antonio Handicap on Feb. 3, Seinne was badly compromised by the slow pace. The one-two-three pacesetters in the San Antonio took down the top three placings, and no closer made an impact chasing tepid fractions of 47.77 and 1:11.60.

It's an entirely different scenario Saturday. The Big Cap pace is likely to unfold with an opening half in about 46, six furlongs in 1:10. It is the type of hot pace that led to Seinne's 7-1 upset in his U.S. debut last summer at Del Mar. Although fast fractions do sometimes compromise late-runners (a truism that still baffles many handicappers), Seinne can rally from behind wicked fractions. He did last September.

Racing a mile on dirt, Seinne fell more than 11 lengths behind a 44.87 half-mile, yet mowed them down and won going away. For perhaps the first time since, Seinne will be chasing a similar heated pace on Saturday. Seinne was a Group 2 winner in South America going 1 1/4 miles, and may be the longshot who enters the Big Cap begging for the 10-furlong trip and the fast fractions. At a giant price, he is a must-bet horse.