02/07/2002 1:00AM

There's a Grade 1, and then there's...


JAMAICA, N.Y. - The rule of thumb is that Grade 1 races are the stomping grounds of Grade 1 winners, or at the very least multiple Grade 2 winners.

Good luck finding such a horse in the Donn.

Oh sure, several entrants have Grade 1 black type to their credit. Just not in recent memory.

The defections of Lido Palace and Monarchos have whittled the roster of Grade 1 winners in the Donn down to three: Hal's Hope, Red Bullet, and Traditionally.

Hal's Hope, it may be remembered, won the Grade 1 2000 Florida Derby, two years ago this March. Red Bullet won the Preakness, two years ago this May.

Traditionally's fifteen minutes came in the 2001 Oaklawn Handicap. That must seem like eons ago to Shug McGaughey, because the blueblood's four starts since then - and there is no longer any other way to spin this - have been atrocious.

How about Free of Love, who looked home free in midstretch of last summer's Jim Dandy, only to be collared by the mighty Scorpion?

There is indeed a "G1" describing the 2001 Jim Dandy in the past performances of Free of Love. If you believe that was a true Grade 1, there is a bridge in Brooklyn that I can let you have for a great price.

A closer look, in post position order, with noteworthy pace-and-speed figs included:

Pleasant Divorce: Terrorized optional claimers at Laurel last fall, winning three straight, then couldn't handle Coyote Lakes, an 8-year-old long-distance specialist who roams Aqueduct's inner-dirt track in the winter. Next triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure will be his first.

Mongoose: Has gotten pretty good, winning three in a row since last fall. It's just that he hasn't gotten fast. The comeback at Gulfstream earned him a lifetime top Beyer Speed Figure of 102. On Quirin it was also a top, at 107-107.

Keats: Capable of big-figure efforts when allowed to get loose early, as was the case in last year's 16-1 shocker in the Lexington and in his seasonal bow at Gulfstream Jan. 4, when he ran 106-115. This isn't a deep field, but there is enough speed to force him past his comfort threshold.

Free of Love: Handled a deep Gulfstream strip in 4-year-old return, but in the wake of the dark-day renovations this past Tuesday, the track he saw three weeks ago may bear little resemblance to this one. Has the kind of consistent figure profile (last three: 107-106, 106-107, 107-108) that make him usable underneath in trifectas.

Best of the Rest: Faded out of the money at 3-5 in a Grade 3 at Calder to close out 2001. His best upset chance comes if the track is wet.

Ubiquity: Last seen upsetting the Grade 2 Clark Handicap while still eligible for a second-level allowance condition. His most recent start on the New York circuit was a 103-107 at Belmont last October.

Hal's Hope: If Red Bullet is the morning-line favorite, this horse for the course has to be accorded a reasonable chance after finishing just a half-length behind that rival in the Skip Away. Beaten in back-to-back starts by Best of the Rest at Calder last fall.

Duckhorn: Along with Keats, he ensures a big-league pace. Beware that he sorely needed his comeback race at Gulfstream last winter, however, and he is returning from a much longer absence this time.

Red Bullet: It's put-up or shut-up time for this 5-year-old chestnut, who, believe it or not, had never been two turns on a dry track before last month's tune-up at Gulfstream.

Red Bullet's pace and speed figs from that race (108-108) didn't exactly set any stopwatches on tilt. Beyond the mediocre numbers, he didn't change leads until deep stretch of the Cigar Mile, and he remained on his left lead through the stretch of the Skip Away.

Graeme Hall: Idle since the Cigar Mile, but the 2000 Jim Dandy winner didn't seem at all rusty at any stage of last fall's form cycle, when he came back from nearly four months on the sidelines and ran Beyers of 110-113-112.

His pace and final-time figs improved too, from 102-108 in the Oct. 7 allowance; to 106-110 winning the Stuyvesant; to 111-112 chasing stablemate Left Bank in the Cigar Mile.

Watch Your Pennies: Hard to recommend.

Rize: May take more action than he deserves, after winning an off-the-turf route by a pole with a 104 Beyer. On Quirin, his 100-106 for that race shows he was on cruise control to the far turn. No such luxury here.

Kiss a Native: Multiple graded stakes winner is an intriguing turf-to-dirt longshot play, with a near-top Beyer of 106 on dirt just two starts back. The post (13) doesn't help.

Traditionally: One subpar performance in an overall good form cycle is excusable, perhaps even two when there are extenuating circumstances. Four off races in a row over a span of eight months are tough to look past.

Last week's Strub came up 116-112, with 9-5 favorite Mizzen Mast overtaking a collapsing pace to win going away, with a 117 Beyer. When the dust has settled, the Donn result is unlikely to match those numbers, but a 14-horse Grade 1 is sure to be entertaining, even if the field isn't exceptional from a historical standpoint.

It looks to be between Graeme Hall and Red Bullet, much like their battle for second in the Cigar Mile. If Graeme Hall is really the 4-1 that the morning line suggests, that seems fair, because he projects for a garden-spot trip just off Keats and Duckhorn.