08/21/2002 11:00PM

No viable alternative to Medaglia d'Oro

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LAS VEGAS - They all have Medaglia d'Oro to beat in Saturday's Travers. That's obvious. But is there any horse who can realistically challenge the overwhelming favorite? It's certainly worth looking into because, based on his awesome-looking 13 3/4-length romp in the Jim Dandy, Medaglia d'Oro will be seriously overbet.

The Jim Dandy was run on Aug. 4, a hugely speed-favoring day at Saratoga. Medaglia d'Oro set a pedestrian pace with a first quarter in 23.60 seconds. He was largely uncontested on the lead and he beat a fairly nondescript field.

Under these ideal circumstances you would expect a very talented horse like Medaglia d'Oro to run a big Beyer Figure. And he certainly did: an astounding 120. That's higher than any Jim Dandy in the past decade - perhaps in many decades. And that's higher than any previous Travers Stakes in the past decade (Point Given's 117 is the highest since 1990), perhaps the highest since General Assembly wired the field in 1979 on a wet-fast, speed-favoring surface.

Horses who run giant races with the benefit of perfect trips should always be treated skeptically next time out - no matter how big the Beyer.

But that 120 looks awfully daunting because the opposition for Medaglia d'Oro may not be a lot stronger than he faced in the Jim Dandy. In fact, a few of the horses who were well beaten in that race are back for another go.

Gold Dollar, for example, chased three wide throughout, and finished an okay third. He could run a bit better Saturday. Nothing Flat saved ground early and then went very wide around the far turn, bearing out at the top of the stretch. Then he was bothered by the sharply left-turning Quest in midstretch.

But by far the most interesting runner from the Jim Dandy is the culprit himself - Quest, disqualified from second in that race. This colt is by far the best in a long, long line of disappointing 3-year-olds this season from Nick Zito's barn. He was very impressive visually in two Belmont allowance wins against older horses. And in the Jim Dandy he lived up to that promise.

Breaking from the outside post in a field of nine, he was stuck four wide throughout and actually did some substantial running against the bias. He closed to finish a clear runner-up (Beyer: 97). He could be a major threat to Medaglia d'Oro, but he will need some help. He will need the favorite to bounce rather badly, and he will need someone to make sure that Medaglia d'Oro doesn't loaf along again on the lead. After all, he has to close a Beyer figure gap of more than 20 points.

The pace problem should be solved by the presence of Shah Jehan, a sacrificial rabbit tossed in by D. Wayne Lukas. Shah Jehan only ran a triple-digit Beyer once, a 101 at seven furlongs, and most recently finished a weak fourth against second-level allowance runners in the first week at Saratoga (Beyer only 86). He looks like a hopelessly overmatched horse at a distance too far. But at least he will help make for a more honest pace.

Puzzlement could be interesting since he is trained by Allan Jerkens, showed dramatic improvement in the spring, and has been pointed for this race. But his win against second-level allowance runners on opening day at Saratoga was not impressive at all. He had a perfect trip and earned a Beyer of only 100.

Saint Marden is not prepared to handle this big step up in class, even though his recent allowance win at least looked very impressive (Beyer: 101).

Like a Hero ran a Beyer of 105 while chasing War Emblem in the Haskell three weeks ago. But he looks as if he has reached his Beyer limit, at least temporarily.

That leaves the fascinating Repent. Twice in the spring he recorded Beyers of 102 on the road to the Kentucky Derby. But bone chip surgery sidelined him until, 4 1/2 months later, he's preparing to run 1 1/4 miles off a long layoff against, arguably, the best 3-year-old in America. Repent's connections might take heart in Farda Amiga's much-heralded win in the Alabama last Saturday. She won at 1 1/4 miles despite a 3 1/2-month layoff. After that race, cries of "3-year-old filly champion" came pouring in immediately from all quarters.

But a Beyer reality check may be in order. Farda Amiga defeated a very subpar field and earned a Beyer of only 100. That's three points below her win in the Kentucky Oaks back in May, and it's the lowest Beyer Figure for an Alabama winner since 1993. So, figure-wise, it was a very underwhelming performance. If Repent follows that script, he won't be within hailing distance of Medaglia d'Oro when they hit the wire in the Travers. But if he's sharp, fit, and improved with four-months maturation, he could at least make it interesting.

Unfortunately for those looking to beat the big favorite, the huge gap in Beyers remains. Considering the caliber of his opposition, Medaglia d'Oro doesn't have to run even remotely as fast as he did in the Jim Dandy. I'm afraid that in this year's Travers we might be treated to a rather unexciting, unremarkable example of bounce and win.