06/19/2005 11:00PM

Saint Liam fills Ghostzapper void

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NEW YORK - Much has been made about how Saint Liam's decisive victory in Saturday's Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs moved him to an undisputed lead over the other active members of the handicap division, and for very good reason. The unfortunate retirement of Horse of the Year Ghostzapper on June 13 left an enormous void in this division, and the only thing that can temper the sense of loss felt when such an outstanding performer departs the scene is for another horse to step right up.

If not nearly as brilliant or compelling as Ghostzapper, Saint Liam is certainly a natural successor. He gave Ghostzapper by far his toughest battle over the last two years, losing by a neck in the Woodward last September. And as Ghostzapper did in the Breeders' Cup Classic last October, Saint Liam also walloped Roses in May, having done so in the Donn Handicap in February before Roses in May traveled halfway across the globe and won the Dubai World Cup.

That piece of flattery was nice for Saint Liam, but in more tangible terms, the Donn may prove to be a rare early-season race that actually has meaning when it comes to the year-end Eclipse Award polls. Everyone hopes, of course, that Roses in May will be able to demonstrate his best form when he finally does return to action in this country. Depth in the older and 3-year-old male divisions were not issues when Ghostzapper was around, but now that he's not, they are issues - and there isn't a great deal of depth in either division.

In this context, an in-form Roses in May in action this summer and fall would be most welcome. But given the post-Dubai World Cup racing history of North American-based horses, the odds of Roses in May being as good as he was before he left are not good. For the latest example of the Dubai hangover, check out Choctaw Nation's performance in Saturday's Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park. In his first appearance since finishing third to Roses in May in Dubai, Choctaw Nation was a dull and thoroughly beaten fifth against moderate opposition as the 2-1 Californian favorite. So, Saint Liam's win over Roses in May when Roses in May was still Roses in May might, alongside his Foster win, be a valuable chip come Eclipse Award voting time.

In any event, almost as important as Saint Liam's rise was the re-emergence Saturday of a horse who is already a champion. That would be Ashado, last year's Eclipse Award-winning 3-year-old filly, who returned to championship form in the Ogden Phipps Handicap at Belmont Park.

Ashado's first two races this year, losses at odds-on in the Apple Blossom and Pimlico Breeders' Cup Distaff handicaps, were decidedly below the form she demonstrated when she defeated a solid group of older opponents in the Breeders' Cup Distaff last October. But those losses were forgotten after the Phipps.

Of course, it helped Ashado that there was a complete lack of other early speed in the Phipps. It also helped that the stretch-running Society Selection, who ran very well to be second, was compromised not only by the pace scenario, but also by running inside of opponents till late on the far turn. Society Selection seems much more effective when she rallies outside of horses. But then, Ashado might not be at her best on the early lead. She might be her most effective when he has a target to stalk. So, it is to Ashado's credit that she did not merely capitalize, but capitalized to win emphatically.

Ashado was not the only winner of note Saturday among older females. Two Trail Sioux wired a solid field in the Fleur de Lis Handicap on the Foster undercard, making it 6 wins from her last 7 starts.

Some might say that Two Trail Sioux's victory was a function of an easy early lead, but don't believe it. Two Trail Sioux may have established an uncontested early lead, but it was anything but easy. Her first two fractions of 23.26 seconds and 46.77 were faster than what Presidentialaffair set on a clear early lead in the Foster. And despite going slower early than Two Trail Sioux, Presidentialaffair, a multiple stakes winner who earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 116 two starts back, finished last of eight in the Foster.

Finally, a word about Saturday's NTRA National Pick 4. Horseplayers are known to complain, and sometimes we even complain when we win. I am no exception. Be honest, there are many times we hit an exacta or trifecta and say, "Gee, that thing could have paid more."

Well, anyone who hit Saturday's NTRA Pick 4 should have his or her complaining privileges revoked for a month, because the gimmick paid outrageously good. An odds-on favorite in Ashado ($3.70) started it off, followed by a third choice in Two Trail Sioux ($9.80), followed by another odds-on favorite in Saint Liam ($3.80), with Lava Man ($19.80) completing the sequence in what seemed like an obvious spread race. The $1 parlay for these win prices was $167. The actual $1 payoff was $454, more than 2 1/2 times the parlay.

I can't blame anyone if they are already lining up to bet the next NTRA Pick 4, which is on Aug. 13.