01/07/2002 12:00AM

A tough horse with true grit


NEW YORK - Once in a while, it's good to remember how fortunate we who follow Thoroughbred racing are to have such good past performances. No other sport keeps such intricate records or makes them as widely available to the public, and nowhere else in the world are these statistics as thorough.

However, on occasion, a race pops up that a past performance line won't do justice. The running line of winner Wooden Phone in Saturday's San Pasqual Handicap is a good example.

When Wooden Phone runs next, probably in the San Antonio Handicap, his running line for the San Pasqual won't look especially extraordinary. It will show him stalking the leaders from fairly close range and getting up to head Euchre in a finish where less than a length separated the first four under the wire. The comment line, which will likely read something to the effect of "stalked, wide, driving," may add a bit more to the picture, but certainly far from enough.

In this instance, you had to know how the San Pasqual looked on paper and you had to see how the race was run to fully appreciate how much the best Wooden Phone really was.

On paper, Wooden Phone looked like the controlling speed. He did after all dispute the early pace before winning the Strub and finishing second to reigning Horse of the Year Tiznow in the Big Cap.

But Wooden Phone got left at the start in the San Pasqual. Then, Irisheyesareflying opportunistically assumed the lead and threw down a first quarter in 23.18 seconds, making sure that Wooden Phone would have to pay a hefty price to take his expected place up top. Not only was Wooden Phone's strategical advantage gone, he was totally out of his game.

Moreover, Wooden Phone was caught four wide on the first turn and five wide on the second turn, which is all right at Belmont Park, especially on Breeders' Cup Day, but not at Santa Anita, where tighter turns increase the negative impact of ground loss.

So when Wooden Phone fell back to fifth, closer to last than first, turning for home, he looked to be in a world of trouble. But, no one told Wooden Phone, and he proceeded to outkick everyone to gain a victory that was as much impressive for the determination it showed as it was deserved for what he was able to overcome.

When Wooden Phone runs in the future, keep in mind that his running line in the San Pasqual is by no means as mundane as it may appear. Wooden Phone can win when a whole lot is going against him, and a horse who can win in the face of adversity is dangerous indeed.

Affirmed Success back where he belongs

Saturday's seventh race at Aqueduct was not a race of national importance. But it was interesting because it was the 8-year-old debut of Affirmed Success.

Affirmed Success is just a cool horse. This gelding has been competing at the highest levels of the game since 1997, has been worse than third only seven times while winning 13 of 32 career starts (before Saturday's outing) and has earned almost $1.8 million. He is also a fascinating example of career management.

Earlier in his career, Affirmed Success, who has been trained throughout his career by Rick Schosberg. was one of the best horses in the nation at seven furlongs to a mile on dirt. But after he was beaten for a second straight year in the Breeders' Cup Sprint in 1999 at a six-furlong distance that is a tad too short for him, the decision was made to turn him into a turf horse. Affirmed Success has a suitable pedigree for grass, and his connections felt his best shot in the Breeders' Cup would be in a race like the Mile, so they were willing to switch surfaces.

Having a soft spot in my heart for Affirmed Success, I watched the attempted transformation carefully. It wasn't long before I wished it were abandoned. It wasn't as though Affirmed Success was running badly on turf, but he was narrowly losing to the kind of horses he would have eaten for lunch on dirt. Affirmed Success routinely ran Beyer Speed Figures of 110 or higher on dirt, but he never cracked the 110 mark on turf. He was also beaten in the last two runnings of the Mile, though in 2000 he was beaten only a half-length in finishing fourth.

It's easy to wonder if, by concentrating on turf the last two years, Affirmed Success was denied greater glory on dirt. On the other hand, racing mainly on turf, which is a more forgiving surface, may have prolonged Affirmed Success's career. Though he was upset Saturday, Affirmed Success ran an excellent race in his first attempt at two turns on dirt since the 1997 Travers. He was nailed late by Boston Party, who is capable of running a big one, especially on Aqueduct's inner track, in a race run in very fast time.

The botton line: This cool horse named Affirmed Success isn't done yet.