04/14/2004 11:00PM

More questions than answers

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NEW YORK - There are two ways to interpret the results of last Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes, in which The Cliff's Edge earned a lofty 111 Beyer Speed Figure running down Lion Heart, and the Wood Memorial, in which Tapit earned a lowly 98 in a blanket finish over Master David and Eddington.

The first is to conclude that The Cliff's Edge and Lion Heart are simply a notch above the rest of these 3-year-olds and, like Empire Maker and Funny Cide emerging from last year's similarly rated Wood, they will dominate the Triple Crown. Perhaps The Cliff's Edge has suddenly blossomed into a killer, Lion Heart really was the best in the West all along, and everyone else is running for third money this year.

At the risk of looking a gift horse and an easy $80 Derby exacta in the mouth, I just don't buy it. I have no quarrel with the figures assigned to the two races based on the available evidence, and I grant that blind adherence to sometimes counterintuitive figures has profitably identified recent overlays, including Charismatic, War Emblem, and Funny Cide. Still, there are peculiar circumstances surrounding the times of last Saturday's two races that make them difficult to gauge with confidence.

The Wood and the Blue Grass were run in similar final times - 1:49.70 and 1:49.42, respectively - but over apparently very different track surfaces. At Aqueduct, the track seemed very quick, yielding blazing times such as Pico Central's 1:20.22 for seven furlongs in the Carter and Forest Danger's 1:20.67 in the Bay Shore. At Keeneland, by comparison, the Grade 2 Commonwealth Breeders' Cup was won by Lion Tamer in a pokey 1:23.14, and four 1 1/16-mile routes on the card were run in slow times ranging from 1:45.72 to 1:50.15. By any methodology, that seems to makes the Blue Grass a much faster race than the Wood.

The first problem is that the Wood was one of only two two-turn races on the Aqueduct card, the other being a starter handicap three hours earlier at the infrequently used distance of 1 5/16 miles. The rest of the races were run out of a chute at seven furlongs or a mile, distances at which a strong wind down the backstretch may have aided running times. The same wind worked against the Wood horses, so the race clearly has to be treated separately, but by how much? Without other two-turn races to use for comparison, an educated guess is as precise as it can get.

The Blue Grass poses different problems. There were plenty of other routes on the card, but the Blue Grass still comes up impossibly fast without a downward adjustment. It was the only nine-furlong race on the card, and two aspects of its internal fractions raise doubts about either the credibility of the clocking or the possibility of a drastic change in the track for that race.

The official times for the first two quarter-miles of the race are simply bizarre. Lime-stone was a head in front of Lion Heart after a slow first quarter in 23.70 seconds, and Lion Heart had the lead after a supposedly much faster second quarter for a half in 46.60. If you buy those fractions, here are the first two quarters run by some of the other horses in the race: The Cliff's Edge would have run a first quarter in 25.84 and a second quarter in 21.91; Action This Day went from a 25.42 to a 22.46; That's an Outrage followed a 25.59 with a 21.86; and Breakaway zoomed from a 26.18 to a 21.87. This all seems unlikely.

The final furlong of the race is also hard to fathom. Horses almost never truly accelerate at the end of a dirt route, but the clock shows The Cliff's Edge going from a fourth quarter in 24.75 to a final eighth in 12.34. Even more implausibly, a tiring albeit game Lion Heart supposedly went from a fourth quarter in 25.79 to a final eighth in 12.60.

Compare these finishes, in a nine-furlong race for 3-year-olds, to the final furlong of the Commonwealth, where Lion Tamer came charging late to run down the stakes-winning older sprinters Private Horde and Marino Marini. That final eighth was run in 13.36. Did The Cliff's Edge really run a full second faster down the lane in a longer race?

Maybe he did and he's a cinch in the Derby, and maybe I'm just bringing preexisting prejudices to the table. I have trouble reconciling The Cliff's Edge's seemingly dazzling performance with his losses at Tampa Bay and Gulfstream. I also can't shake the visual impression that Tapit showed the most raw talent of anyone who raced last weekend, even while knowing that horses who haven't cracked a 98 by now almost never win the Derby.

In a season where every week has brought a new reversal of form, Super Saturday provided either stunning clarity I am choosing to ignore, or yet more ambiguity and confusion - and I still haven't figured out what to make of Smarty Jones. I feel as if I will need every minute of the next two weeks to make sense of this Derby field.