08/12/2002 12:00AM

Perfect now, vulnerable later?


NEW YORK - Notes and random thoughts:

You have to give jockey Mike Smith a lot of credit. I don't think the connections of Azeri planned at all to have their filly win Sunday's Clement L. Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar on the front end.

Azeri was clearly rank going to the first turn. She obviously didn't want to be behind horses, and instead of fighting her, Smith let Azeri go to the lead into the first turn. His decision enabled Azeri, the nation's top older filly, to continue her roll with a decisive, if less than spectacular victory.

But if Azeri is to be a major force in the Breeders' Cup Distaff on Oct. 26, she is going to have to remember how to rate, as she did in her best performances earlier this year. Perhaps the way to teach her to do that is to race her more often. If she is too fresh going into the Breeders' Cup, getting her to relax may be an impossible task.

Much the best, by a head

The margin at Saratoga's finish line on Saturday may have only been a head, but don't let that fool you. The difference between Sword Dancer winner With Anticipation and runner-up Denon was greater than that. With Anticipation was wide around all three turns in the 1 1/2-mile Sword Dancer, while Denon received a dream rail trip, culminating with an opening on the hedge in upper stretch that enabled him to take command with precious little effort.

On the basis of ground loss alone - which is a more significant factor on the tighter-turned inner turf course at Saratoga than it would be, for example, around the wider turns of the Widener turf course at Belmont Park - With Anticipation was probably a couple of lengths better than Denon. And, Denon's failure to hold on after the trip he got only increases my suspicion that he is not a true 1 1/2-mile horse.

Still, as gutsy as With Anticipation was Saturday, I can't help but feel that European horsemen have to be licking their chops when it comes to their chances in the 1 1/2-mile Breeders' Cup Turf.

The ultimate test for bettors

Much is made about how tough a meet Saratoga is for handicappers. The reasons most often given are full fields, the wide variety of races run, and lots of shippers from Kentucky and elsewhere. That's all true, but perhaps the biggest reason Saratoga is so tough is the level of sophistication of the bettors who play it, whether on track or by simulcast, is higher than any other race meet in the country.

Opinionated horseplayers are always attracted by a challenge, and racing at Saratoga presents challenges that are too attractive for players to ignore. Saratoga is a final exam for bettors, the ultimate test of how good your game is as a horseplayer.

Almost every sharp horseplayer in America is represented in the parimutuel pools at Saratoga, and when you play Saratoga, you are betting against them. That is why it seems some horses who win at Saratoga and pay $6 would pay $10 to win if the same race was run elsewhere. And that is why Saratoga is so difficult even before you have to deal with a race that has eight first-time starters, or shippers from Churchill, Delaware, Monmouth, and Rockingham.

A skeptic's view

The North American Graded Stakes Committee has started the ball rolling for greater drug testing in the sport's biggest races. I wish them all the success in the world. Anything that can be done to enhance the integrity of the game is welcome.

But pardon me if I remain very skeptical.

Maybe I'm too jaded, but I don't think we will ever see another positive test from a horse coming out of a race like the Kentucky Derby, no matter what kind of testing is in place, and no matter what those tests may turn up. And I don't think testing alone is enough of a deterrent to make those who may be inclined not to play fair suddenly see the light.

In 1968, Dancer's Image, in a vehemently disputed test, was positive for Butazolidin after winning the Derby. After many years of litigation and several flip-flops of the result, the disqualification of Dancer's Image was upheld, and Forward Pass was named the 1968 Derby winner.

This happened in an era, however, when Thoroughbred racing was still king; before state lotteries and casino gambling outside of Las Vegas. On a Friday, 25,000 would turn out at Aqueduct. If there were a positive in the Derby today, probably for a drug much more insidious than Butazolidin, it would happen in a far more litigious atmosphere in front of a public with far less of a stomach for it.

A positive drug test on the winner of a Triple Crown race could cause everyone but the most hardened horseplayers to run away from racing to the blackjack tables, and would result in a black eye from which racing might never recover. That is why I think no matter what kind of testing is in place, we won't see another such positive. And I really hope I'm wrong about this.