02/07/2005 1:00AM

Saint Liam all-out every step

Saint Liam wins the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, matching his lifetime-high Beyer Speed Figure of 114.

NEW YORK - It is a matter of record that the only time Ghostzapper was tested during his 2004 Horse of the Year campaign was by Saint Liam in the Woodward. And make no mistake, Ghostzapper, perhaps the best horse to set foot on an American track in many, many years, was thoroughly tested. Saint Liam dogged him every step of the way, and while he carried Ghostzapper out through the stretch, it must be noted that Saint Liam could not be ridden properly because he was getting out. It should also be noted that Saint Liam gave Ghostzapper such a battle despite having not raced in more than five months.

Because of this, a victory by Saint Liam in Saturday's Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park, even over as tough an opponent as Roses in May, was a likely outcome. But anyone with even a passing acquaintance with New York racing knew the instant Sis City turned the Davona Dale Stakes into a runaway three races earlier that a Saint Liam

victory in the Donn was almost a formality. That is because when Rick Dutrow, the New York-based trainer of Sis City and Saint Liam, sends out a horse to win huge like Sis City did - she won the Davona Dale by a mere 16 lengths - then his horses run huge in bunches. Run huge is precisely what Saint Liam did. The only downer is that Dutrow didn't have anyone else in on the Gulfstream card to bet on.

Saint Liam matched his big Woodward effort in the Donn in terms of Beyer Speed Figures, equaling that career best of 114. Visually, however, his Donn seemed even better. Saint Liam went four wide on the first turn - that run to the first turn in nine-furlong races at Gulfstream seems awfully short, doesn't it? - and then took it right to Roses in May through a second quarter in 23.58 seconds, and a third quarter in 23.79.

On the far turn, it was as plain as day that Saint Liam was going to win, and not because Roses in May was backing up. Roses in May doesn't quit. He showed that when he won the Whitney last summer, and when he chased Ghostzapper around the track in the Breeders' Cup Classic, never letting anyone else in that excellent field get close to him for second money. It was that Saint Liam simply looked like a powerhouse. Despite doing his drift-out act again in the stretch, he still managed to nearly double the two-length lead he had at the eighth pole by the time he hit the wire.

The laudable thing about horses like Saint Liam, and Roses in May, and Ghostzapper for that matter, is that they are capable of running hard every step of the way. That puts them in stark contrast to a horse like Rock Hard Ten, who prevailed at 4-5 in the Strub Stakes at Santa Anita later on Saturday. Comments from the Rock Hard Ten camp after the Strub seemed almost apologetic that he won by only a nose, and the chief reason employed for why he didn't win nearly as decisively as the majority anticipated was that he had to move a bit sooner than would have been preferable. Sorry, but that doesn't wash. Rock Hard Ten got an ideal setup sitting behind a hotly contested early pace, and when he did move, he moved right when the Strub was falling apart. When Rock Hard Ten moved, he did so into a third quarter in 24.46, and a fourth quarter run in an abysmal 26.02.

Getting back to Saint Liam and Roses in May, it is troubling that after the Donn, the connections of both horses expressed interest in running in the Dubai World Cup on March 26. Unless the connections of both can live with the Dubai Cup being the last really good race their horses run, if not their horses' last race, period, I hope they reconsider. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it seems that every year at this time I note the compelling evidence that American horses who make that trip are rarely the same afterward.

Last year, Pleasantly Perfect went to Dubai, and won. When he came home, he did manage to win the Pacific Classic, but it was a weak renewal of that race in a performance that was not on a par with his best. Before that, Pleasantly Perfect lost a race he had no business losing in the San Diego Handicap, and after that, he was ineffective in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Medaglia d'Oro also went to Dubai last year and finished second, but never raced again. You know that wasn't the plan.

In 2003, Harlan's Holiday was a shell of his former self after going to Dubai, joining a list including Soul of the Matter, Siphon, Sandpit, Malek, Puerto Madero, Public Purse, Saint's Honor, and Captain Steve, all of whom never won after Dubai, and some of whom never even raced again.

Before Dutrow's successes at Gulfstream on Saturday, it was the Todd Pletcher show, as the 2004 Eclipse Award-winning trainer sent out three 3-year-olds to very impressive victories. Maddalena won in a romp again in the Old Hat Stakes to remain undefeated and earn her second straight triple-digit Beyer Figure. For purposes of comparison, she received another 102, while Sis City got a 97. Proud Accolade galloped in the Hutcheson, and the only reason why he didn't win by more than 4 1/2 lengths, or do better than a 93 Beyer, was because of meaningful trouble during the running. And then, Pletcher sent out Bandini to a nine-length allowance score for his second big win of the year, and his final time for nine furlongs of 1:51.03 was certainly comparable with the 1:50.14 run by Closing Argument to win the Holy Bull Stakes.