08/07/2001 11:00PM

Scorpion's leap forward hard to explain

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COLUMBIA, Md. - It's Cat Thief all over again.

You remember Cat Thief. He shocked the world when he won the 1999 Breeders' Cup Classic for trainer D. Wayne Lukas. No one gave him a chance. And with good reason. While he clearly had talent, he was a confirmed runner-up whenever he raced against top-level competition.

His average Beyer Figure in his four pre-Breeders' Cup races was an ordinary 104. But when the purse jumped up to $4 million, Cat Thief jumped up to a huge 118 figure, and took down more than $2 million in earnings.

What happened to Cat Thief after his big payday? He instantly returned to his old ways. He had a few seconds and a few thirds, but he never won another race. His average Beyer Figure in his final 11 races: 104.

Now we have Scorpion, Cat Thief's kindred spirit. He had no chance in last Saturday's Jim Dandy at Saratoga. Lukas actually planned to run him in last Friday's six-furlong Amsterdam against City Zip, but scratched him at the last minute. Then he said he regretted it.

A quick glance at Scorpion's record shows why. He had proven on six separate occasions that he didn't want to run beyond seven furlongs. In six races at a mile or more he had already lost by a total of 73 lengths. His average Beyer Figure for all his 3-year-old efforts - including his preferred sprints - was a very modest 85. He earned his best Beyer, a 91, at six furlongs. Clearly, Scorpion was in with no chance at 1 1/8 miles against the likes of Congaree and A.P. Valentine.

Of course, we all know that racing is full of surprises. So Congaree running poorly did not shock me. He had a hard campaign in the Triple Crown races, and he had not been tested at all in his perfect-trip jog in the Swaps Stakes. Now we learn that he suffered a knee injury during the running of the Jim Dandy.

As for A P Valentine's lackluster performance, I have always felt that he was permanently set back by an exhausting effort in the Champagne last October, followed too quickly by the Breeders' Cup Juvenile - a costly deviation from trainer Nick Zito's usual, more deliberate road to the Kentucky Derby.

But A P Valentine struggled back valiantly to finish second in the Preakness and the Belmont. Still, he has only run a 100-plus Beyer Figure once in his career, and, after the great promise of his 2-year-old year, he has been a bit of a disappointment.

I also had no problem with the big effort put in by Free of Love, an even longer shot than Scorpion in the Jim Dandy. First, jockey Richard Migliore cleverly took advantage of the speed-favoring surface and put Free of Love on the rail and on the lead, and set a modest pace. Second, Free of Love had recently earned Beyers of 99 and 96 at 1 1/16 miles. In addition, trainer Richard Violette Jr. had rested him for six weeks, obviously pointing for this race. Free of Love ran a perfectly believable figure of 104 while finishing second in the Jim Dandy.

But Scorpion's performance goes beyond surprising, or even shocking.

Because it's not that Scorpion ran well, or even that he made a huge jump up to a figure of 105. It's the way he won - with power, determination, and a closing kick in the late stages of a distance he has never wanted to run.

There are, of course, several plausible explanations for Scorpion's dramatic improvement:

* Jockey Jerry Bailey gave Scorpion a perfect ride, sitting on the good rail just a few lengths behind the two speeds.

* Lukas's horses are running very well this year at Saratoga.

* Lukas really knows how to get horses ready for a peak effort in the big money races - although no one has ever explained exactly how he goes about it, and why he's the only top-company trainer who regularly delivers so many surprise packages.

Unfortunately, I don't find any of these explanations - or even all of them put together - very satisfying. As a last resort perhaps you could argue that, once the two big favorites had failed to fire, the Jim Dandy ended up more like a wildly overpriced $600,000 allowance race, and not a Grade 1 classic. But, again, you have to look at Scorpion's fancy Beyer and his freight-train-like charge in the final eighth of a mile.

Of course, handicappers can't afford to dwell on such things. We just shake our heads, grumble for a while, turn the page, and go on to the next race - thankful that nearly all ordinary races are Scorpion-free.

Still, I do find it disturbing. It's not simply another run-of-the-mill longshot surprise. Rather, it's a case of a well-known quantity, with frequently and fully demonstrated limitations, jumping up conveniently at just the right cash-rich moment.

As a horseplayer, I'm distressed by the violation of all logic and predictability. As a fan, I'm sorry to see some of the world's biggest races being acted out in the Theater of the Absurd.