08/02/2002 12:00AM

Mr. Mellon ready to earn some respect


PHOENIX - There are obvious reasons why the Haskell is held in such high regard. Grade 1 status and a $1 million purse will do that.

But there are other reasons it is an important race: It often brings the return of the biggest Triple Crown players, and it yearly provides us a look at fresh faces - horses who missed the spring classics and are now ready to dive into the deep end of the pool.

This year's running is no exception. Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem is ready to go. Belmont runner-up Medaglia d'Oro is entered, although he is expected to go in Saratoga's Jim Dandy the same day. Magic Weisner, second in the Preakness and fourth in the Belmont, will run.

But one of the most intriguing aspects to the Haskell is the emerging 3-year-old Mr. Mellon, who appears ready to step into the high-rent district for trainer Elliott Walden.

A son of Red Ransom, Mr. Mellon blossomed when sent long. After a big maiden win in February he came back to win Turfway's Rushaway. That sent him to the Arkansas Derby as the chalk. He finished a lackluster sixth, and was left on the outside when a full field entered the Derby.

That allowed Walden a chance to experiment. Offspring of Red Ransom love the turf, and Mr. Mellon is no different. He was second in the Jefferson Cup on the Churchill turf, then won the Grade 2 Arlington Classic on the turf June 29. It would have been easy for Walden to wait for the Secretariat, on grass at Arlington in two weeks, so that he has chosen to race Mr. Mellon in the Haskell shows his confidence.

Walden doesn't sound resigned to a loss in the Haskell.

"It's a difficult race to win," he said. "War Emblem is a top horse, but this horse is doing really well right now.

"He showed some talent on the dirt early. I kind of rushed him into the Arkansas Derby and he found himself on the lead. He'll go either way. I like the fact that War Emblem is on our outside. We can see how things go from the gate and take if from there."

Should Mr. Mellon do well in the Haskell, he might remind you of the filly Affluent. She is a Grade 1 stakes winner on turf and dirt. Despite two Grade 1 wins last year, she got little support for the 3-year-old filly title. Mr. Mellon probably won't be an Eclipse candidate either, but he has appeal in this spot at 10-1 or so.

We still have to see if War Emblem was just the hottest horse at the right time during the Triple Crown, or if he's a top, top runner. Trainer Bob Baffert sounds confident.

"Everything looks good," he said. "The horse is doing well. I like the post, but we had a good post in the Belmont and it was a disaster. The most important thing is that he gets out of the gate well. I think he was moving in the Belmont and that's why the ground broke away from under him.

"I wouldn't have shipped him there for the fans unless he was doing great. I tried to make the Haskell with Silver Charm and Real Quiet, but the Triple Crown was too hard on them. This horse is really light and very fluid. In his Belmont, he wasn't that tired afterward. He didn't really lay it all out. When he didn't have a chance, Victor was smart enough to wrap him up.

"I feel better about him than I did about Point Given last year. He came from off the pace and Gary [Stevens] had to make a long run with him. War Emblem's style is more conducive to the Haskell."

My play: a win wager on Mr. Mellon, then a large exacta of War Emblem over Mr. Mellon, and a smaller exacta of Mr. Mellon over War Emblem. I will also use both in the one and two spots on a trifecta ticket, over Magic Weisner, Like a Hero, Puck, and Easyfromthegitgo (assuming Medaglia d'Oro does not run).

Crucial race for Congaree

Sunday's Grade 2 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar is a fork in the road for Congaree. Just two months ago he was regarded as one of the top two or three horses in the game. Then he got his doors blown off by Street Cry in the Stephen Foster. He had some excuses, but he did not run well. The Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup came and went without him. The 1 1/16-mile San Diego can put him back on the right path, or back to the drawing board.

On paper it's a race he should win. He hung up a 1:23 work for seven furlongs at Del Mar last Wednesday to signal his readiness. David Flores has the call and figures to let him roll.