08/05/2002 12:00AM

Save the G-word for those truly deserving


NEW YORK - Talent is an essential ingredient of greatness. But, greatness requires more than just talent.

That was my first thought after Saturday's Whitney Handicap at Saratoga, which attracted the country's strongest field of older horses this year, and Sunday's Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, which proved a successful return for the nation's top 3-year-old, War Emblem.

The talent in the Whitney was impressive, with Street Cry, Lido Palace, Macho Uno, and Left Bank. All had flashed hints of greatness. Macho Uno was, in fact, a champion at 2 on the strength of a win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Lido Palace last year won the Whitney and Woodward back to back, and you don't accomplish that with mirrors. Left Bank, too, was a multiple Grade 1 winner and he cracked a lofty Beyer Speed Figure plateau with a 121 in his last start, a romp in the Tom Fool. But, the horse in the Whitney who had a chance to forward at least a debatable case for potential greatness was Street Cry.

Lightly raced at 2 and 3, Street Cry came back this year at age 4 to win his first three starts like a machine, including scores by city blocks in the Dubai World Cup and Stephen Foster Handicap in his last two starts. It could have been that he suddenly had found the key to real glory.

Could have, but didn't. Two other components of true greatness are consistency and reliability, and when Street Cry failed to win the Whitney, he came up short in those departments.

While it is true that Left Bank enjoyed a strategic advantage en route to his win in the Whitney, it wasn't so overwhelming as to have made him impenetrable. As Steven Crist correctly pointed out in his Saratoga Diary on drf.com, Left Bank would have preferred to be loose on the lead in the Whitney since he has speed and it was his first attempt around two turns in nearly 22 months, but was denied the front by Saint Verre. Instead, Left Bank made believe the seriously overmatched Saint Verre wasn't even in the race, and let him go early. When you look at it that way, Left Bank enjoyed a six- to seven-length "lead" over Street Cry in the early running.

However, Street Cry still had every chance to catch Left Bank, and couldn't. In midstretch, well after Left Bank had assumed command, Street Cry was only 2 1/2 lengths behind Left Bank. Yet, despite a final eighth in a slowish 12.85 seconds, Street Cry could only halve the deficit. And, don't tell me that Street Cry and Lido Palace, who was only a nose behind Street Cry at the wire after a very similar trip, had to be set down earlier than they normally would have been, because I won't be sympathetic. Yes, it is true that Street Cry and Lido Palace had to be put into drives around the far turn, and that probably muted their late kicks to some degree. But, when they were put into drives, Left Bank, though well out in front of them, was running just as fast as them.

None of this is meant to diminish Left Bank's performance. He won the strongest race for older horses in this country so far this year, and was decidedly best. Left Bank has now won 14 of 24 starts and has relegated his reputation as a bully - one who would beat up on soft fields, but would crumble when faced with the slightest challenge - to a distant memory. It is to say that the search for greatness continues.

The distinction between a great horse and one who is very good is an important matter to me. Not to wave this as a flag or anything, but I was a racing fan for nearly five years when the greatest of them all, Secretariat, came along, and was a thoroughly seasoned horseplayer by the time true greats like Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid arrived.

Aside from meaning I'm getting old - where's my walker? - this affords me with a frame of reference. This is why I rail when some horses in recent years have been cavalierly granted the term "great" - although I understand it, because it has been so long since we've had a truly great horse, and racing people are feeling desperate.

I say this because the issue is sure to rear its head again after War Emblem thoroughly dominated the Haskell.

With victories now in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Haskell, War Emblem has done everything a 3-year-old can do at this stage except for sweeping the Triple Crown. He has lots of talent, but does that make him great? You may hear that it does, but what's the hurry? There will be other races down the road in which, unlike the Haskell, some horse with quality will seriously challenge War Emblem on the front end. As comebacks go, the Haskell was just fine, but let's first see War Emblem prove he is a little more than a one-dimensional front-runner who likes things his own way.

Let's first see how War Emblem stacks up against this group of very good, if not great older horses. If War Emblem truly merits consideration for a rating beyond "very good," let future races prove it.

You'll know it when you see it. You can't fake greatness.