09/12/2005 12:00AM

No disgrace to win using a rabbit


NEW YORK - Given that he was as easy a two-length winner of a major Grade 1 race as you will ever see, it is understandable for people to wonder if Saint Liam really required the services of two "rabbits" in Saturday's at Belmont Park.

That's a fair question. The 1 1/8 miles of the Woodward is a different type of race from the 1 1/8 miles of the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga. Commentator's narrow, front-running decision over Saint Liam in the Whitney was, of course, a major reason why pace help was enlisted this time for Saint Liam, although not the only one. Comments from Saint Liam's connections after the Woodward indicated that they wanted to get Saint Liam a win that would take as little out of him as possible with his main goal of the Breeders' Cup Classic five weeks from this Saturday.

In any event, the one-turn Woodward is a more grueling race than the Whitney, contested around two turns. The Whitney's additional turn provides an extra set of lead changes, and the resulting boost of stamina can carry a speed horse farther. Besides, it seems to be forgotten that the result of the Whitney, in which Saint Liam was odds-on, was an upset. The different conditions of the Woodward were more in Saint Liam's favor, and in view of his performance, it might very well have been the case that he didn't need any help Saturday.

Nevertheless, it's not fair to question whether it was ethical, or sporting, for Saint Liam to have the help of Show Boot and Crafty Player as rabbits. Over the years, rabbits have been used for the benefit of some of the game's great horses. At times, Buckpasser had four different rabbits (Impressive, Stupendous, Poker, and Great Power). Damascus had Hedevar. Even Citation, who in the opinion of many people ranks along with Secretariat and Man o' War as one of the three best horses in American racing, had a rabbit on occasion, and on one of those occasions, his rabbit was champion Coaltown. Using rabbits did nothing to diminish the stature of these horses, nor did it reflect poorly on the people who trained them - all members of the Hall of Fame. There is nothing in the world wrong with doing everything you have to do to win while still operating within the rules.

The only thing that was unseemly Saturday concerning Saint Liam and his rabbits was that they were not all coupled in the same parimutuel entry. Show Boot and Crafty Player were coupled, as they shared common ownership. But even though they and Saint Liam are all trained by Rick Dutrow, Saint Liam was his own betting interest because there was no common ownership. Now, one could say that anyone who bet on the Show Boot-Crafty Player entry probably deserves to be separated from his money, and there would be a lot of truth to that. But the whole world knew that the only reason Show Boot and Crafty Player were in the Woodward was to act as sacrificial lambs for Saint Liam. To take wagers on them in this particular circumstance, and there were tens of thousands of dollars bet to win on the Show Boot-Crafty Player entry, was a terrible disservice to the betting public. It should never have happened, even if that meant the race would have had only two betting interests.

Strangely, there wasn't nearly as much outcry over the help Better Talk Now got from his pacemaker, Shake the Bank, in the Man o' War Stakes. Shake the Bank gave Better Talk Now the honest pace he craves, and when Better Talk Now gets that, he is a tough customer. This time, he took a three-horse stretch battle from King's Drama and Relaxed Gesture while not being asked for his best, and Better Talk Now's well-measured score came over the type of firm-to-hard footing where he has not seemed quite as effective. But in a Breeders' Cup Turf context, Better Talk Now's Man o' War victory also served to flatter Powerscourt, who left Better Talk Now reeling in the final furlong of his dominant win in the Arlington Million.

On Sunday at Belmont, the main event was the Grade 1 Ruffian Handicap, and Stellar Jayne and Society Selection both ran well finishing one-two. But the knockout performance of the day came from Shakespeare, who improved his career record to 4 for 4 with an impressive victory in the Belmont Breeders' Cup Handicap on the turf.

It is true that Shakespeare whipped only three opponents in the Belmont BC and that two of them, Meteor Storm and Evening Attire, although accomplished horses, seem well past their prime. But Shakespeare delivered a burst of speed through the stretch that was really something to see. He inhaled the leaders through a fourth quarter-mile in 22.50 seconds and cruised through the final eighth of a nine-furlong race in 11.44, meaning he went his last three furlongs in under 34 seconds. That's sensational, no matter how fast the rain-starved turf at Belmont may be. Despite his inexperience, Shakespeare may try to get to the Breeders' Cup Turf through the Oct. 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. This colt is a freak, so don't put it past him.