07/07/2003 12:00AM

Praise Albarado's ride - and Mineshaft's season


NEW YORK - That's how you do it, Robby Albarado!

Albarado received a lot of criticism for his ride on Mineshaft when they lost a heartbreaker in last month's Stephen Foster Handicap, based on a needless, premature, wide move into a hot fraction. And the criticism was thoroughly deserved. But as anxious and impatient as Albarado seemed in the Foster, he was as patient and deliberate on Mineshaft in Saturday's Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park.

Albarado didn't seem completely trustworthy of Mineshaft in the Foster, riding as if the horse needed help instead of riding him like the 3-5 shot he was. In the Suburban, Albarado displayed supreme confidence in Mineshaft, riding him as if he were much the best horse, which he was.

In fact, Albarado's ride was a big reason why Mineshaft was so impressive winning the Suburban. Mineshaft could have taken the lead at any time from early pacesetter Judge's Case. But Albarado waited and waited and waited until Judge's Case could carry him along no farther. Then, after Mineshaft took the lead midway on the far turn, Albarado could have pulled the rug on his field and opened up a quick two or three lengths. Instead, he waited some more, even letting Volponi, who was re-equipped with blinkers for the first time since his runaway upset in the Breeders' Cup Classic, come alongside him and poke a head in front.

Albarado let Volponi stay with him and Mineshaft to the eighth pole, at which time he dropped his hands and merely scrubbed on Mineshaft's neck. In an instant, Mineshaft cemented the outcome by pulling away with the kind of acceleration you see in only the real good ones, making a horse as fine as Volponi look helpless.

It was some performance by Mineshaft, enabled in no small part by fine choreography by Albarado. And now, despite the protestations of Mineshaft's trainer, Neil Howard, who would probably prefer to remain the hunter than become the hunted, it is hard not to acknowledge that Mineshaft has supplanted Medaglia d'Oro as the top older horse in the nation. Medaglia d'Oro, who is supposed to return from an injury-related absence in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga on Aug. 2, was very impressive winning both his starts this year. But, the fields he beat in the Strub and the Oaklawn Handicap were small and terribly overmatched.

Mineshaft, meanwhile, improved his record this year to 5 wins and 2 seconds from 7 starts. He has now raced at five racetracks this year, and would boast victories at all five of them if the photo in the Foster had gone the other way. Mineshaft now has two Grade 1 victories this year (it should be three; that Foster thing again) and most importantly, he has now beaten most of the best older horses in the Midwest and the East.

One of the other many nice things about Mineshaft is that he is building an Eclipse Award campaign of the vintage variety. He figures to have at least three and perhaps as many as four more starts this year.

Howard said there was a good chance Mineshaft would start in the Whitney. The Woodward at the Belmont fall meet has been mentioned as a target, and he would probably need another race between that and the Breeders' Cup Classic, perhaps the Jockey Club Gold Cup. That means Mineshaft may have as many as 11 starts this year, which would make him one of the most active championship-caliber older males in recent history. The last champion older male to have started as many as 11 times was Skip Away, who started exactly that many times in 1997, the first year he won this divisional title.

Before that, you have to go back to 1990, when Criminal Type made 11 starts. And before that, you have to go back another eight years, to 1982, when Lemhi Gold started 12 times.

At the very least, Mineshaft may be reversing a recent trend of champion older males putting in a light campaign. Left Bank started only four times last year; he suffered a fatal illness two-thirds of the way through the season. Tiznow had only six starts in 2001, and Victory Gallop made but four starts in 1999.

All of which leads to another reason to praise Albarado for his ride on Mineshaft on Saturday. Although, as I wrote last week, I believe horses never win as easily as they appear to win, Mineshaft certainly was not subjected to a draining performance in the Suburban. By asking Mineshaft to do as little as necessary to win, Albarado made sure as much was left in the tank as possible. That can only be of benefit to Mineshaft down the road, as his march to an Eclipse Award continues.