11/25/2004 12:00AM

Storm Surge even better than he looks in KJC


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Nearly every trip handicapper agrees that the most favorable position for a horse is loose on the lead. But ask handicappers to describe the worst possible trip, and the answers would cover multitude of scenarios.

Some would say a poor start for a horse followed by being rushed to the front; others might say a wide trip that costs a runner valuable position; and still others would say a boxed-in journey that may have prevented a horse from getting a clear run.

I say none of those things. The trip that causes me to start tearing up my tickets occurs not at the start, or even on the turn or into the stretch. Rather, it occurs on the backstretch when the horses are nearing the final turn.

Inside-positioned horses are at a distinct disadvantage at this point when a half-length to a length behind the leader. The reason? As the leader or leaders hit the turn, the outside horses tend to drift toward the inside, often impeding or intimidating a speed horse along the fence.

Jockeys on these inside horses are in a lose-lose situation. Sit tight and do nothing, and they may be forced to check their mount. Or hustle their horse to get on even terms with the leader, and they risk their mount weakening from a premature move.

Many riders opt for the latter move - with poor results. Only a rare horse can make a sustained half-mile run - the approximate distance from the start of the final turn to the wire - after being close to the pace early.

But Storm Surge, entered in Saturday's Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs, did just that in his last start. Racing in the seven-furlong Lone Star Juvenile on Breeders' Cup Day, he had the unfavorable inside trip I just described. Yet instead of folding in the stretch from being rushed heading into the turn, he kicked clear from his opponents, winning by 2 3/4 lengths over favored Spanish Chestnut and earning a 90 Beyer Speed Figure.

Given the difficulty of the trip he encountered at Lone Star, I have little doubt he will be able to run back to that 90 Beyer in the 1 1/16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club. And the beauty is that no one will be betting him off his demanding last-race trip. That 90 Beyer will attract attention, but to look strictly at his past performances, there is no trouble noted to draw bettors.

And because he had a ground-saving trip, his last-race number on the sheets - which take into account how wide a horse raced - will not be as strong as it would have been if he had raced three or four wide, though such a trip outside the other speed would have been easier the way the race unfolded.

The conditions of the Kentucky Jockey Club are much different than the Lone Star Juvenile. A graded stakes around two turns, it is a tougher and more demanding race for a 2-year-old who has never raced farther than seven furlongs.

Nothing about Storm Surge suggests he is a speed-crazy horse unlikely to adapt to longer distances. A son of Storm Cat, he has adapted to his rider's wishes in all of his races. He has shown speed when asked for it. He has rallied after being rated.

That versatility should serve him well in the Kentucky Jockey Club, particularly with apprentice Brian Hernandez Jr. riding him for the first time.

I'm similarly encouraged by the return to Churchill Downs, where he won his maiden in May and later ran second to Lunarpal in the Grade 3 Bashford Manor July 5. He showed heart in both races, especially when finishing within a neck of Lunarpal, who was widely regarded as the top early-season 2-year-old in the country until Saratoga got underway this summer.

I'll play Storm Surge to win the Kentucky Jockey Club, and use him in the exotics with Social Probation and Rush Bay. Social Probation fought through traffic to finish a distant second in the Grade 3 Iroquois, while Rush Bay was a dominant maiden winner going 1 1/16 miles at Churchill Oct. 31.