06/05/2002 12:00AM

Pssst! I've got a future grass star for you . . .


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - There is something exciting about discovering talent, particularly in a young and relatively unnoticed athlete.

That is what Brian Mulligan, who writes Closer Looks for Daily Racing Form, did in the winter of 1996. That year he took a group of colleagues to see a high school basketball game starring a 17-year-old sensation.

Mulligan insisted to me that this kid was the real thing. He was.

That night we watched Mike Bibby dominate on the court. Yet as enjoyable as he was to watch that night, it was even more fun to see what unfolded later.

He led the Arizona Wildcats to the NCAA title in 1997. He became the second player drafted to the NBA in 1998, and last week, as the point guard for the Sacramento Kings, he nearly single-handedly upset the the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA playoffs.

As with human athletes, it can be mentally and financially rewarding to discover a talented racehorse before everyone else jumps on the bandwagon.

I am sure the people who watched War Emblem win his maiden last October at Arlington Park are thumping their chests and reminding their friends how much they always loved this horse.

Well, I will not go as far as to say I have spotted the next War Emblem. But this past week I did have the privilege of watching the horse I think is the best 3-year-old turf horse in the country.

Okay, that could be overstating things, but why be cautious when making predictions? You swing for a home run, and hope to hit the ball out.

So who is this horse, this unknown animal that is ready to make a splash on the national scene?

A mere $6,500 yearling purchase named Jeremiah Jack.

You might remember him as the horse who finished sixth in the Lone Star Derby, fifth in the Rebel, and fourth in the Lecomte. Then again, you might not.

But bettors who watched him win at Churchill Downs last Friday remember him as the horse who ran 1 1/16 mile on turf in 1:41.09. Andrew Beyer knows him as the horse who earned a 102 Beyer Speed Figure, one of the highest figures awarded to a 3-year-old turf horse this year.

Trust me, you ought to get to know this horse, too.

His turf debut last week was something special. Pressed from the start by graded stakes winner Duckhorn, he set quick fractions of 46.51 seconds and 1:10.81. For a brief moment on the turn, it looked as if runner-up Proper Man might rally past him. It didn't happen.

Jeremiah Jack took off again, running the final five-sixteenths of a mile in 30.28 seconds, a fast closing split for a horse who was involved in a lively pace. He won by more than five lengths over the 5-year-old Proper Man, and there was another 10-length margin back to third.

To put Jeremiah Jack's win in perspective, Proper Man had lost his previous two races, both on dirt, by a length to Invisible Ink and by 4 3/4 lengths to Macho Uno. Those are names every handicapper will recognize.

Granted, Jeremiah Jack did not defeat a group of turf specialists. The conditions of the allowance race restricted entrants to horses who had not won an allowance race on grass.

But Proper Man appeared to handle the turf very well. He ran his race, and his race wasn't good enough to get him remotely close to the winner.

Tom Amoss, who trains Jeremiah Jack, said after the race that he will point his runner to some upcoming grass stakes, with the $500,000 Virginia Derby on July 13 and a series of Arlington Park turf races being the options. The Arlington Classic begins that series on June 29.

When he is entered next, I'll have to alert Mulligan. I owe him one.