05/22/2002 11:00PM

Preakness pace figures were sensational

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Practitioners who make their own Quirin-style pace and speed figures will rarely have numbers that are exactly alike. They may use sets of par times with slightly different scales; and all those who have taken up the endeavor at one time or another know projections and subjective judgments are part of the process.

It is of paramount importance to be consistent so that relationships between figures remain constant over time, and apples-to-oranges comparisons are kept to workable minimums. When James Quinn's figures recently appeared in Horseplayer Magazine's Kentucky Derby issue, for example, his ratings for the springtime prep races differed from mine, which was to be expected. But the important thing (for me) was to see the pecking order from fastest to slowest preps was essentially the same.

For the purposes of this and subsequent discussions, my figures tend toward a fairly tight scale. A 100-100 rating, of course, is par for $10,000 claimers. The slowest horses who run on Aqueduct's inner-dirt track in the dead of winter might get the job done with figures in the mid-80's. In a handful of races during the season, the upper echelon of various divisions may run into the 115 neighborhood. In the past two years I have yet to assign a 120 for pace and/or final time, although other figure makers occasionally do.

No matter what par times and variants are used to grade out last Saturday's Preakness card at Pimlico, handicappers of all persuasions, not just speed, should have a deep and newfound respect for the quality of War Emblem's performance. His Preakness win received figures of 116-110, and for me a 116 is a knock-your-socks-off pace number. For purposes of comparison, only the San Fernando Breeders' Cup (118-111), Strub (117-112), and Carter (115-109) have come up similarly white-hot at the pace call to this point in the season - and it should be remembered that the Carter is seven furlongs, not 1 3/16 miles two weeks after the Kentucky Derby.

(As an aside, those who wonder about the potential wager value of pace figures might consider that Western Pride, the on-the-pace winner of the San Fernando, came back to run second at 20-1 in the Santa Anita Handicap, keying a $196 exacta underneath the Bobby Frankel-trained second choice Milwaukee Brew).

War Emblem's Preakness may not have seemed as visually overwhelming as his Kentucky Derby (110-110), in which Victor Espinoza was able to distribute the colt's energy evenly, but it was actually a far more complete effort. It called into play the additional attributes of early tractability and late determination to thwart two stretch challenges. Despite all the pre-race bluster and bravado by the connections of various speed horses, War Emblem was the only colt besides Menacing Dennis who was really keen on being up close at such a demanding tempo, and he was the only early pace runner to finish in the front half of the field.

Peter Pan may be key prep

In the wake of War Emblem's comprehensive undressing of his rivals in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, it was surprising to see 16 horses in Daily Racing Form's Friday edition still listed as potential contenders in the Belmont Stakes. Four of them are scheduled to run in Saturday's Peter Pan, headed by the Neil Drysdale-trained Sunday Break, whose best effort to date was a close third-place finish (110-108) in the Wood Memorial.

Sunday Break looks to be odds-on in the Peter Pan, as he takes the same route to the Belmont as another Drysdale horse, A.P. Indy. The other Peter Pan starters mentioned as Belmont prospects, Fast Decision, Ibn Al Haitham, and Puzzlement, will need breakthrough performances to move on.

Fast Decision (103-106) won the one-mile Withers after wearing down Shah Jehan. In terms of figures, the race was barely a second-level allowance (a condition the one-two finishers were eligible for at the time).

Ibn Al Haitham, who is still a maiden, has trained well for his first start since running third behind Essence of Dubai in the UAE Derby two months ago. But he will have to improve leaps and bounds off his previous start at Belmont, a ninth-place finish at 94-1 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Puzzlement deserves some respect for the Allen Jerkens factor alone. Thus far at the meet, these connections have run second in the Genuine Risk with Shine Again (behind Xtra Heat) and won the Shuvee Handicap with 17-1 shot Shiny Band. Still, Puzzlement was life-and-death last out to finish a half-length in front of Judge Chris, who last Sunday lost for the 21st time in 22 career starts.

An intriguing Peter Pan starter, at least from an exotics standpoint, is Heir D' Twine, who is not a Triple Crown nominee. He was running into the teeth of a gold rail speed bias when he rallied from sixth to wind up third in last month's Federico Tesio at Pimlico.

The horse who finished ahead of Heir D'twine by a half-length in the Tesio was another against-the-bias stretch runner by the name of Magic Weisner.