08/21/2002 11:00PM

In search of one worthy longshot


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Strategy for Saturday's $1 million guaranteed pick four at Saratoga begins with the following exercise:

Go to Medaglia d'Oro's past performances and draw a big black line through his last race.

This is not to suggest that the Jim Dandy never happened. Nor is it to say Medaglia d'Oro can't win the Travers, because the track's morning linemaker says he will be 2-5 by post time. Of course he can win.

Just do yourself a favor. Stop gazing at that "120" emblazoned in bold-face type right alongside where it says "Jim Dandy," because that is the only thing most folks are going to see, and things are not always that simple.

In the first place, 120 is probably not an expression of true ability in this instance, but merely a resounding example of what can happen when a good horse gets to set the pace on an intensely speed-favoring racetrack.

And the rail was as golden as golden gets on Aug. 4. Horses who didn't figure to be around by the stretch were hanging around all the way to the wire. If you were the best horse to begin with, like Medaglia d'Oro, you were winning big.

Bias aside, another reason to be skeptical is that what we see in the Jim Dandy, or think we see, is seldom what will happen again three weeks later.

After he stopped to a walk in the Jim Dandy, who used Albert the Great in their Travers exactas?

Who liked Sea Hero?

Who thought Conquistador Cielo could lose?

In the history of the Jim Dandy, winners trying to repeat in the Travers have won four times in 24 attempts. All else being equal, the math says their natural odds of repeating are 6-1, and we know all else is never equal.

Three weeks later, there is more weight to be carried. There is the little matter of a 10th furlong just at the point where hearts, lungs, and muscles are already screaming "No mas!"

Form is improving for some, and form is tailing off for others.

And there are all those ghosts in the rafters.

You want to stand alone with an odds-on favorite in the Travers? That's fine when the horse in your pocket is Point Given, a nose short in the Breeders' Cup and winner of the Santa Anita Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, and Haskell.

You know what Medaglia d'Oro has won so far? A maiden sprint at Oaklawn Park; the San Felipe over

U S S Tinosa and Siphonic, who was coming apart at the seams; and the Jim Dandy on a gold rail.

"I'm 2-5," said Frankel at the post-position draw for the Travers. "No one is 2-5."

In the quest for a reasonable alternative to 2-5, it's plain that most of the Travers field, which collectively lacks a Grade 1 title and contains just two graded stakes winners, simply doesn't belong.

Maybe Repent belongs. But if he wins first time out since the Illinois Derby, then Ken McPeek is the next Charlie Whittingham.

Like a Hero may be the only other horse who belongs.

It sure didn't look that way in the Belmont Stakes when he was out of the running soon after being slammed at the break.

That kind of shellacking first time in a big spot can set a young horse back for months. But a funny thing happened after the Belmont. Instead of regressing, Like a Hero came back in the Swaps and improved his lifetime top Beyer by 10 points, from 96 to a 106, with a close runner-up finish behind Came Home, who has won seven graded stakes on both coasts, from six to nine furlongs.

If there is an underrated horse in America today, it is Came Home, and Like a Hero ran Came Home to a 1 1/4-length decision in the Swaps.

Does anyone really believe Medaglia d'Oro is better than Came Home?

The same afternoon that Medaglia d'Oro ran his 120 in the Jim Dandy, Like a Hero ran 105 in the Haskell chasing War Emblem, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner. The track "heavily favored speed along the rail," according to Daily Racing Form correspondent Ryan Goldberg in DRF Simulcast Weekly.

If Like a Hero wins the Travers, Ryan Goldberg is my hero. And I will be yours, at least through the remains of the day.