05/23/2004 11:00PM

Purge's win adds to Smarty's luster

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NEW YORK - Even though it isn't likely to produce any challengers for Triple Crown-bound Smarty Jones in the June 5 Belmont Stakes, Saturday's Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park did tell us a few things.

One of the most obvious lessons is that the Peter Pan offered further proof of just how special the undefeated Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones really is. Purge was absolutely no match for Smarty Jones in two races at Oaklawn Park (the Rebel and Arkansas Derby). But on Saturday, Purge made a representative group of his peers, including the winners of three meaningful Kentucky Derby prep races, look hopeless in a runaway victory. Purge's record can be broken down this way: 0 for 2 in races that included Smarty Jones, 3 for 3 in all of his other races, with an aggregate win margin of 13 3/4 lengths.

The Peter Pan also told us that Purge is a pretty nice colt in his own right. For the first time going a middle distance, Purge relaxed off the early lead, making him all the more effective in the later stages. And, over a Belmont main track that was typically tricky when it comes to judging the relative speed of the surface, but which certainly got faster as the afternoon wore on, Purge's effort was still good enough for him to be assigned a very respectable Beyer Speed Figure of 108. Okay, so Purge isn't a Smarty Jones, but a rare few are, and there will be plenty of other stakes races in which Purge will be tough to beat.

Florida Derby: What a dud it was

The outcome of the Peter Pan proved once and for all that this year's Florida Derby was one of the worst major Kentucky Derby preps of all time. While some people would have you believe that the Florida Derby wasn't as bad as its pitiful winning Beyer Figure of 92 suggests - by claiming that race was run over a dry, cuppy track and noting that The Cliff's Edge and Tapit came out of that race to win the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial - here are the rest of the facts:

There have been eight other horses to start after racing in the Florida Derby, and they have made a total of nine starts. The only one to have finished better than fifth in any of those post Florida Derby races was Frisky Spider, who was a life-and-death winner at 4-5 in a small stakes at Delaware Park. Notorious Rogue, who finished last of 10 in the Florida Derby, came back to be fifth, beaten more than seven lengths, in an entry-level allowance race at Aqueduct. Smoocher, who finished seventh in the Florida Derby, was awful in his two subsequent starts at Woodbine, finishing fourth, beaten seven lengths, at 6-5 in an optional claimer, and fifth at 7-2, beaten 15, in Saturday's Marine Stakes. Farnum Alley, who was beaten only four lengths finishing fifth in the Florida Derby, came back to be beaten 34 lengths, finishing 10th in the Illinois Derby. Read the Footnotes, who edged Farnum Alley for fourth at Gulfstream, was beaten nearly 15 lengths finishing seventh in the Kentucky Derby. Value Plus was second, beaten less than a length in the Florida Derby, but came back to be beaten more than eight lengths finishing sixth as the favorite in the Wood Memorial.

And then we have Friends Lake, the colt who actually ran his race, so to speak, and won the Florida Derby. His next race was the Kentucky Derby, in which he finished 15th, beaten 36 3/4 lengths. Even if you think Friends Lake

didn't like the slop on Derby Day, which would make him the only son of A.P. Indy in history to not like a wet track, he caught a perfect track in the Peter Pan Saturday, and responded with a seventh, beaten more than 15 lengths.

Master David's ride a puzzler

One thing I was hoping the Peter Pan would be able to prove was whether the Wood Memorial was a negative key race, as I have begun to suspect. However, no conclusions could be drawn from the performance of Master David, who would have been an ideal vehicle to make such a judgment. What made Master David such a good potential barometer was, before being outrun in the Kentucky Derby he finished second in the Wood, beaten just a half-length. Given the positional speed he demonstrated in the Wood, and in his win in the Sham before that, Master David looked perfectly set up to capitalize on a hot pace, much like Purge did, and that is one of the reasons why he was the 8-5 favorite. If Master David didn't capitalize, it would give weight to the notion of seriously downgrading the Wood.

But Master David was given absolutely no chance to win by jockey Alex Solis, who incredibly and indefensibly, had him last of 10 going down the backstretch. I would bet that you could have given the Peter Pan past performances to 1,000 handicappers before the race, and not one of them would have predicted that Master David would have trailed for almost the first half of the race. Master David had no chance to win from there, but to the colt's credit, he tried, and his third-place finish is better than it appears on paper.