09/14/2005 11:00PM

Private Vow the one they'll be chasing

Fifth Avenue is one of seven 2-year-old fillies slated to run in Saturday's Grade 1 Matron.

ELMONT, N.Y. - The 2-year-olds start sorting themselves out Saturday in the Futurity and the Matron Stakes at Belmont, which serve as the first glimpse of how the juveniles are progressing into the fall.

Run at one mile since 1994, both races have been shortened to seven furlongs Saturday.

The last seven-furlong Futurity winner was Holy Bull, who handed Dehere the first defeat of his career, edging the eventual 2-year-old champ by a half-length on a sloppy track in 1993.

Only time will tell if any of this year's Futurity runners can go on to approach Holy Bull's level of ability, but according to the weather forecast there is a 50-50 chance the race will be run on a wet track.

With the exception of Private Vow, a two-time winner at Saratoga, the Futurity is in essence a race for nonwinners of two lifetime, which is not a bad spot to run your horse when the purse is $300,000.

And except for Dixiewink, who seems outgunned after winning a maiden route at Delaware Park just last week in ordinary time, the youngsters in the Futurity share one common characteristic: their victories were all accomplished after having the lead at the pace call. Only Union Course did not have the lead at the first call, as well.

Since Union Course's debut win, he has had some experience rallying from off the pace in two stakes and has run progressively faster.

A look at Quirin-style pace and speed figures can shed some more light on the Futurity:

Changing Weather: 101-102 (debut).

Diabolical: 106-97 (Sapling); 99-102 (debut).

Disco's Son: 104-99 (maiden win).

Master of Disaster: 101-102 (Saratoga Special).

Private Vow: 107*-105* (allowance); 102-103 (maiden win).

Union Course: 101-100 (Saratoga Special); 95-98 (Flash); 96-96 (debut).

Private Vow's allowance win has asterisks because it was run on a track that was drying out throughout the day, from muddy to good and finally to fast for his race. Private Vow's race was the final dirt race of the day, and the previous dirt races had been the first through the fourth, so there is just no way to be supremely confident about how much the track changed, if at all, in the 1 1/2 hours that elapsed between the fourth and the seventh.

The thing to take from the numbers is this: If Private Vow's pace figure is reasonably accurate, he is quick enough to relegate the others to a chasing position.

Moreover, Private Vow has shown the ability to rally past horses if need be, and his steady improvement at Saratoga came as he stretched out in distance. His experience at seven furlongs is an edge over his principal rivals, Master of Disaster, Changing Weather, and Union Course.

And for an example of the interplay of pace and speed, note how Diabolical was able to set a relatively modest pace and post a big final figure in his debut, but unable to duplicate that figure when he encountered a faster pace in the Sapling.

With one exception, the figures recorded by the seven 2-year-old fillies in the Matron, whether Beyer Figures or Quirin-style figures, have been thoroughly unexceptional:

Along the Sea: 99-97 (Spinaway).

Fifth Avenue: 98-98 (Adirondack); 99-98 (Fashion).

Folklore: 101-100 (Spinaway); 101-99 (Adirondack).

Halo Humor: 101-97 (allowance); 98-98 (debut win).

India: 104-103 (maiden win); 100-95 (debut).

Miss Norman: 100-93 (Del Mar Debutante).

River's Prayer: 102-99 (Del Mar Debutante).

I'm not as confident about my Southern California figures, simply because I don't regularly make figures for that circuit. Even so, a look at the Beyers shows that the Cal shippers, River's Prayer and Miss Norman, have a similarly linear pattern. As the distances have increased, their figures have declined. I'm going to toss them both.

Ordinarily, it would be tempting to go against a filly like India, a Todd Pletcher-trained horse who is stretching out from 5 1/2 furlongs for her first start against winners, and her first start in over seven weeks, but that is hard to do in view of the pedestrian performances of her more experienced rivals as measured against the clock. India has the best last-out Beyer in the field by anywhere from 14 to 32 points, and the Quirin figures say she is at absolutely no disadvantage in terms of early pace - a rarity when maiden winners jump to stakes company.

India's maiden win during opening week at Saratoga also serves as a shining illustration of how second-time starters are capable of making a quantum leap. "After the race, Todd said to me, 'I was expecting her to run like that the first time,' " said jockey John Velazquez. "The first time she ran, she was extremely green. If she runs like she did last time, she'll be very tough."

I tend to agree.