06/24/2001 11:00PM

Takes more than a slow pace to beat Astra


NEW YORK - Pace makes the race, except on turf.

Any horse sitting off the lead after a quarter in 25.95 seconds and a half in 49.78 would be toast in just about every race on dirt. But on turf, early fractions don't seem to matter anymore, and the latest example was provided by Astra in Sunday's Beverly Hills Handicap at Hollywood Park.

In today's game on turf, what really matters is how fast a horse can come home. And there is no other filly or mare turf specialist in training right now who can come home as fast as Astra. That was abundantly apparent in the stretch run of the Beverly Hills, as Astra, despite a dawdling pace that would figure to mute her stretch kick, still blew Happyanunoit, a quality opponent, off the track with a breathtaking late move.

Astra clearly has thrived under judicious handling from trainer Simon Bray. This 5-year-old mare now boasts a record of eight wins from 10 starts. In other words, Bray doesn't throw a saddle over Astra unless she is right, and so long as she is right, there isn't another turf female around right now who is her equal. Regardless of the pace.

Confusion continues

Beautiful Pleasure, champion older female in 1999 and second in her division last year to Riboletta, made her 6-year-old debut last Saturday in the Hempstead Handicap at Belmont Park. Her return was eagerly anticipated, because the older filly and mare division is currently in a state of disarray, and an in-form Beautiful Pleasure would have established some welcome order to this group, at least until Riboletta makes her return in late summer. Instead, Beautiful Pleasure uncharacteristically ran up the white flag turning for home and finished "absolutely."

Now, even to the untrained eye Beautiful Pleasure was clearly overweight. That in itself wasn't troubling, nor was the fact that she drifted out on the far turn and again into the stretch. Beautiful Pleasure drifted out many times in the past, and that never stopped her from winning big in big spots. What was alarming is that Beautiful Pleasure simply did not run. This from a mare who has a history of running big off workouts and layoffs. Beautiful Pleasure won the first start of her career, and after the four longest layoffs of her career before Saturday she won twice and was the victim of a terrible trip in the 1999 Apple Blossom.

Given Beautiful Pleasure's advanced age, maybe she's different now. Maybe she'll need another race or two before she hits her stride. Or maybe those who expected Beautiful Pleasure to perform at a high level for yet another season, like me, were just expecting too much.

The forgotten 3-year-old

On the Friday after the Belmont Stakes, I was at Monmouth Park for a couple of handicapping seminars. I had a new Daily Racing Form hat to give away, and so I asked a trivia question: Who was the colt who beat Point Given in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall?

After a pregnant pause and a few incorrect responses, one person in the crowd of more than 60 got it right: Macho Uno.

Macho Uno has been forgotten, but that may not be the case for much longer. After a sharp workout at Belmont Saturday, it looks like last year's champion 2-year-old may be ready to return to action late next month. Yet, even if Macho Uno comes back like gangbusters, Point Given, by virtue of his dominating victories in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, has in all likelihood built an insurmountable lead for the 3-year-old championship.

Since 1939, 18 colts other than Point Given won two-thirds of the Triple Crown. Thirteen of those 18 went on to be voted champion 3-year-old. The exceptions were Tabasco Cat in 1994, who was overtaken by Holy Bull; Riva Ridge in 1972, who was outvoted by Key to the Mint; Middleground in 1950, who lost out to Hill Prince; Shut Out in 1942, who was outpolled by Alsab; and Johnstown in 1939, who was overtaken by Challedon.

The pendulum swings

When trainer D. Wayne Lukas said what he had to say about Chris Antley- that he thought Antley wasn't focused in the days before the 1999 Belmont, that he was contemplating replacing him as Charismatic's rider, and that Antley showed little regard for the well being of Charismatic after he broke down in that Belmont - Lukas was roundly lambasted for being grossly insensitive.

Now, the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way, as some have defended Lukas's right to say what he said, as unpopular as it was.

Certainly, Lukas has the right to say whatever he feels, just so long as he doesn't yell "fire" in a crowded theater. I wonder, however, what purpose it served for Lukas to say what he said about Antley. All it could have accomplished was to paint a dead man who had his problems in an even more unfavorable light.

Sometimes, as the saying goes, it is better to keep one's mouth closed and be though of as an idiot than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt.