05/26/2002 11:00PM

Sunday Break still an enigma


NEW YORK - Most of the time, horses show you what they can do in races. For example, War Emblem demonstrated in the Preakness that he can survive a fast, contested pace and still beat almost all of the best 3-year-olds in training.

There are occasions, however, when horses win races and you still don't know what they are capable of doing.

Sunday Break's effort in Saturday's Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park is a prime example.

On the face of it, Sunday Break doesn't look like one of the primary obstacles to War Emblem's bid for the Triple Crown in the June 8 Belmont Stakes. As the 1-2 favorite in the Peter Pan, he won by just a length over Puzzlement, who was coming off a victory in an entry-level allowance race. It was just another two lengths back in third to Deputy Dash, who is still eligible for a first-level allowance race. Moreover, the final time of the Peter Pan, 1:48.10, wasn't exactly stunning, considering the main track was conducive to fast times.

At the same time, it was obvious that Sunday Break didn't come close to being asked for his best. He loped along early behind a controlled pace while gaining the useful experience of eating some dirt, tackled the leaders in upper stretch while still under a long hold, and got the money under only a moderate hand ride while merely being shown the whip.

Sunday Break can do a lot better than he was asked to do in the Peter Pan. One need look no further than two races back on his past performance chart when he was a close third in the Wood Memorial. At the time, the Wood was heralded as the strongest of the Kentucky Derby preps, although the form of the Wood is now in some question since Medaglia d'Oro, who was only beaten a head in that race, couldn't get close to War Emblem in either the Derby or the Preakness. Still, Sunday Break had six weeks away from the races between the Wood and the Peter Pan at a time of year when 3-year-olds often improve in leaps and bounds overnight.

Here's the tricky part of the equation. Has Sunday Break improved, and if so, by how much? How much better can he do than he did on Saturday, and will it be enough to threaten or topple War Emblem in the Belmont?

Because these questions weren't answered in the Peter Pan, it makes Sunday Break one of the big mysteries of this 134th edition of the Belmont Stakes.

Of course, the reason these questions still apply is because the connections of Sunday Break want to keep him as fresh as possible while bringing him to a peak for the big test that awaits him a week from Saturday. With the possibility of a Triple Crown in the air, this approach, while true to modern day training philosophy, stands in contrast to history. It may come as a surprise to learn that the Triple Crown as a series apparently wasn't demanding enough for almost half of the 11 Triple Crown winners. Sir Barton, Omaha, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, and Citation all made starts in between the second and third legs of the Triple Crown.

Imagine the reaction today if War Emblem squeezed in a start between the Preakness and Belmont! There's a lot about the good old days that wasn't so good, but the constitution and durability of racehorses is one thing that does make you long for the past.

At least Sunday Break will bring a very recent start into the Belmont. The same can't be said for Perfect Drift, who is considered one of the other major obstacles for War Emblem, because, as a closer, he was seriously compromised by the lack of a contested pace when third in the Kentucky Derby.

Perfect Drift hasn't raced since the Derby, and that means he will be bucking a big chunk of Belmont Stakes history. Since 1960, every winner of the Belmont, except one, raced either in the Preakness or in another race after the Preakness. The only exception was Commendable in 2000, and that year's Belmont Stakes carries with it a huge asterisk. The field for the 2000 Belmont Stakes did not include the Kentucky Derby winner (Fusaichi Pegasus) or the Preakness winner (Red Bullet), and was widely regarded as the weakest field to contest a Triple Crown event in memory.

That should move Perfect Drift up by about five lengths, don't you think?