07/27/2008 11:00PM

Never underestimate speed


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - By wiring the Belmont Stakes, Da' Tara served as yet another potentially lucrative reminder that the probable pacesetter on dirt often has a better chance than people think.

Whether the race is a short sprint at less than six furlongs (as were 10 of the first 23 races at the Spa) or a 12-furlong test of stamina such as the Belmont, early speed has for decades won more than its fair share of races.

Going back through the charts for a better understanding of Da' Tara's breakthrough performance - Nick Zito's second Belmont winner in five years - it became apparent he had better credentials than your typical 38-1 shot. Basically, he merely improved slightly off a close second in the 1 1/16-mile Barbaro Stakes run a couple hours before Big Brown's Preakness. Here are the fractions from those races:

Big Brown - 23.59, 46.81, 1:10.48, 1:35.72, 1:54.80.

Da' Tara - 24.63, 47.80, 1:10.79, 1:35.56, 1:42.10.

Da' Tara went slower early, to be sure, but imbedded in the Barbaro was a fourth quarter in 24.77 seconds versus a corresponding split of 25.24 in the Preakness. That sharp fourth quarter was indicative of a good measure of stamina; by projecting a plausible 12.70 seconds out to the Preakness distance of 1 3/16 miles, Da' Tara was at least somewhere in the ballpark on paper. Give an improving 3-year-old a clear lead on a rail-favoring track, as Big Sandy was on Belmont Day, and a career-best performance can be the result.

Getting the early lead has also been a key aspect in the development of Mint Lane, the colt who spells big trouble for Da' Tara in Sunday's Jim Dandy Stakes. As a 3-year-old Mint Lane has compiled a 4-2-0 mark from six starts with the early lead, including a 106 Beyer Speed Figure in an overnight stakes, the Postponed, that edges Pyro's 105 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile as top number in the field. The one time this year Mint Lane had some early trouble and didn't make the top, he was beaten a dozen lengths.

"People have knocked him because he's had everything his own way, but I don't agree with that," said Mint Lane's trainer, Jimmy Jerkens. "A lot of horses took shots at him, and they finished up the track while he kept going. You don't necessarily like a horse to be one-dimensional, but on the other hand, they're legitimate fractions - it's not like he was plodding along."

However, the early fractions of the Postponed were indeed a bit slower than the Dwyer at the same 1 1/16-mile distance, which may have been a contributing factor to that big 106 figure.

Postponed: 23.99, 47.49, 1:11.70, 1:36.21, 1:42.67.

Dwyer: 23.55, 46.59, 1:11.01, 1:37.34, 1:44.29.

Mint Lane's Beyer dropped 10 points to a 96 in the Dwyer, but pace handicappers will give him credit for running faster early and turning back challenges.

Pyro is capable of electrifying finishes, and the probable Jim Dandy favorite is likely to benefit from a contested pace between Da' Tara and Mint Lane. After failing to fire in the Blue Grass on Polytrack and Kentucky Derby, he got back on track winning the Northern Dancer with a Beyer of 98, and was flattered when third-place finisher Visionaire returned to win a third-level allowance against older rivals here Thursday.

The knock on Pyro is that while he has managed to win 3 of 4 starts on dirt at 3, he still hasn't gotten back to his two best juvenile figures in the Champagne and BC Juvenile.

Whatever happens in the Jim Dandy, the figure it gets should be solid as we go forward trying to get a line on the Travers, the summer's big prize. Speed handicappers, at least yours truly, can have difficulty coming up with a dead-on track variant when there is a solitary two-turn race on a card, but on Sunday there are two of them back to back, and this will make for a far more trustworthy assessment.

The race that precedes the Jim Dandy, also at 1 1/8 miles for 3-year-olds, is the $90,000 Henry Walton. The best last-out Beyer (95) belongs to the Zito-trained Amped, and to get a better line on him pay close attention to how August Rex fares in Saturday's fourth race. August Rex is the horse Amped overtook to win his first allowance condition three weeks ago, and he was likely to go off as the second choice Saturday to Unbridled's Heart, a $1 million purchase who made the early lead and won his debut by 10 lengths with a Beyer of 101.

Unbridled's Heart was then bet to 4-5 against Mint Lane in the Postponed second time out, but broke awkwardly while Mint Lane scampered clear and wound up a flat third.