06/16/2004 12:00AM

'Storm Flag' in toughest battle yet

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Storm Flag Flying wins the Shuvee on one of her good days - but not all of them are.

ELMONT, N.Y. - As a 2-year-old, Storm Flag Flying's raw talent was enough to overcome her mental instability.

In the morning, she would sometimes freeze on the track. In the afternoon, she could act up in the paddock or on the way to the post parade. But when it was time to run, Storm Flag Flying would do just that. She won all four of her starts at 2, capped by a gutsy win in the 2002 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies to earn an Eclipse Award as champion.

The belief was if Storm Flag Flying could be more professional, there was no telling how good she would become. Twenty months later, the racing community is still wondering.

After a disappointing 3-year-old season interrupted by injury, Storm Flag Flying has won two of three starts this year. Saturday, Storm Flag Flying faces the toughest challenge of her career when she meets former Horse of the Year Azeri and multiple Grade 1 winner Sightseek in the $300,000 Ogden Phipps Handicap at Belmont Park. Passing Shot, another Grade 1 winner, is also expected to run.

It would have been easy to retire Storm Flag Flying last year. After running second in the Comely Stakes in her 3-year-old debut, Storm Flag Flying finished sixth in the Grade 1 Acorn, a race McGaughey thought she could win. A short time later, Storm Flag Flying was diagnosed with a bruised hind cannon bone and was given the remainder of the year off.

At first, Ogden Mills Phipps, son of the late Ogden Phipps, who died in April 2002, considered retiring Storm Flag Flying and breeding her. But Phipps and McGaughey decided against it.

"It was the first of June, we weren't going to get to breed her till next winter anyway; let's give her the time, come back and see what happens," McGaughey said. "So far, it's worked out pretty good."

Storm Flag Flying made her 4-year-old debut on Feb. 26 at Gulfstream, where she looked liked her old self, winning an optional claiming race by 3 3/4 lengths. One month later, however, she finished a disappointing third of four in the Grade 2 Distaff Breeders' Cup Handicap, leading once again to talk of retirement.

"I said, 'I cant give you any reason to retire her except she'll have a baby a year earlier,' " McGaughey remembers telling Phipps. "He said, 'Well, we've got a lot of mares we're breeding . . . unless something happens between now and the first of May, let's keep going.' "

Storm Flag Flying made her next start in the Grade 2 Shuvee at Belmont on May 15. After stalking the leaders, Storm Flag Flying was tipped three wide for the stretch drive. In upper stretch, when John Velazquez hit her right-handed, Storm Flag Flying ducked in. Velazquez then hit her left-handed, Storm Flag Flying switched leads, and rallied to get past Passing Shot and Roar Emotion to win the Shuvee by a half-length. The 103 Beyer Speed Figure she earned was a career best.

"I thought she was going to get there till he hit her right-handed, then she ducked in," McGaughey said. "Then when he got her gathered up she came again. In the Comely and the Distaff at Aqueduct she just caved in. The other day when he got her straightened back out she kept coming again."

McGaughey said he is glad the Phippses let him continue on with Storm Flag Flying and believes she can give another effort Saturday like she gave in the Shuvee.

"Their trust and their confidence in that decision made winning the Shuvee more special to me," he said. "And to be able to compete in a race like this is great. Like I said, win, lose, or draw as long as we're competitive. I want to win, and I think she's got a great, big chance to win the way she's training. If we were to beat Azeri, it would be a pretty big feather in her cap to come back and beat a Horse of the Year."