06/10/2004 11:00PM

Speightstown has look of another Orientate

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PHOENIX - Naturally, the focus was on the Belmont but there were other significant events in the hours leading up to the Birdstone's upset.

Here is my two cents' worth:

* Speightstown had already proven a top-class seven-furlong horse. Well, his True North victory here, at six furlongs, was nothing short of dazzling. He broke running but so too did speedster Cat Genius, who not only outran Speightstown though sizzling fractions, but kept him hemmed on the rail. Speightstown showed enough maturity to take back a bit and still maintain his high cruising speed, then he got off the rail and went up and around and right on by Cat Genius. The first thing that came to my mind was how much he reminded me of Orientate.

* I thought Stroll's Woodford Reserve performance was the springboard to stardom, with the Manhattan as the next step. It didn't turn out that way. Maybe Stroll was too eager early on. He was up close to the pace and had nothing left when the real racing began. His rider, Jerry Bailey, said 10 furlongs might be too long for Stroll.

That struck me as odd. Stroll is by Pulpit, who gets 10-furlong horses, and the way Stroll won at 1 1/8 miles indicated another furlong should be no problem. I think the reason he failed in the Manhattan was because the pace was too fast and he didn't settle.

Meanwhile, Meteor Storm hadn't been given too much credit for beating up on what was perceived as a so-so turf bunch out West. But Meteor Storm continues to progress for Wally Dollase and for a while is atop the heap - at least until a Euro hotshot ships in or Stroll gets back on track.

One from the Manhattan worth watching is Epicentre. The Bobby Frankel runner was making his first start in a couple of months in the Manhattan. He was inside nearly all the way, just behind the speed, and seemed to be traveling quite comfortably to the top of the lane. He had to wait for room and showed little once he got it. Maybe he needed this run.

* Fire Slam has the makings of a top sprinter-miler. He has a high cruising speed to get position, he's athletic enough to burst through an opening when the time comes, and has the heart to finish. He's not yet as fast as Speightstown or Pico Central or a number of other top sprinters, but at this time last year you could have said the same thing about 3-year-old Cajun Beat, and he went on to win the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

* My worst fear about Rock Hard Ten came to pass when he unraveled at the head of the stretch in the Belmont. But we'll hear more from him later in the year. He came a long way in a short amount of time and had been asked to do just about the impossible. Remember, he didn't make his career debut until Feb. 7, and only had his first route March 3. Surely now trainer Jason Orman will put him away and regroup. With his size, acceleration and pedigree (by Kris S.), Rock Hard Ten should be effective on turf, too.

* Please, Birdstone people, stop apologizing. Do you think the Florida Marlins should have apologized for denying the Yankees another title? Do you think the Pistons should apologize if they beat the Lakers? This isn't some Hallmark card. At the end of the day there are winners and losers.

* Let's give a big thumbs-up to the track maintenance crew at Belmont Park. Many big race days are dominated by a track bias, but throughout the Belmont card winners came from all directions in terms of style and path. This was accomplished even though track personnel had to prepare for possible rain.