09/01/2002 11:00PM

Traditional class rises no longer apply

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NEW YORK - I firmly believe that if a stable started winning races left and right with horses who had yellow balloons tied to their tails, you would suddenly see hundreds of horses with yellow balloons at the races. But on Saturday, when two last-out maiden winners scored victories in Grade 1 races, I don't think we saw the birth of a new trend.

Saturday's two Grade 1 races for 2-year-olds - the Hopeful at Saratoga and the Del Mar Debutante - were won by immediate graduates from the maiden ranks, but there shouldn't be too much made over it. The surprise by Sky Mesa in the Hopeful and Miss Houdini's upset in the Del Mar Debutante, while saying a lot about their quality, also speaks to the state of today's 2-year-old racing schedule.

Forever, the game worked this way: After winning a straight maiden race, a horse would move on to allowance company, and then to stakes. But, now, as in recent seasons, the number of allowance races that have been run for 2-year-olds in New York and Southern California can be counted on your fingers, with enough digits left over to place a bet at a SAM machine, and hold an adult beverage. If Sky Mesa didn't run back in the Hopeful and Miss Houdini didn't return in the Del Mar Debutante, there wouldn't be many, if any, other spots for them to run. It is the same situation for every other 2-year-old in New York and Southern California. So you can see the rise from straight maiden races to Grade 1's isn't as steep as a lot of people perceive it to be.

On the other hand, the specific circumstances that contributed to Sky Mesa and Miss Houdini making their second starts in the races they won does warrant consideration, because knowing about them legitimately adds to their accomplishments.

After romping early in the Saratoga meet in a performance that was so impressive visually and against the clock that it stood up as the most exciting 2-year-old debut the entire meet, Sky Mesa caught a backstretch bug. Maybe the Hopeful would have been his second start anyway, but that became the only option after Sky Mesa got sick. In any event, Sky Mesa had only two moderate breezes after he recovered. For him to win the Hopeful going away in the fashion that he did while clearly not being wound to peak efficiency suggests he will be a serious handful down the road, because he still has tons of room for improvement.

As for Miss Houdini, it was a leg infection that caused the six-week gap between her easy debut win at Hollywood Park in mid-July and her return on Saturday. And, even though her big workout a week before the Debutante was long and strong, no workout is the same as an actual race when it comes to the physical conditioning of a racehorse. So, for Miss Houdini to have been as unwavering as she was in the Debutante says that, like Sky Mesa, she too will only move forward off this Grade 1 win.

Favorites weren't helped by riders

The victories by Sky Mesa and Miss Houdini should not be taken lightly because of the less-than-ideal rides received by the beaten odds-on favorites, Zavata in the Hopeful and Santa Catarina in the Debutante. Even if the favorites had better trips, I don't think they would have won.

It's understandable that the connections of Zavata wanted to find out if their colt could overcome adversity, because you can't always count on a perfect trip, especially in hotly contested major events. But, I don't know if 1-5 in the Hopeful is the right time to find out if Zavata can fire after being bottled up behind horses, not with a colt who made his mark winning the Tremont and Saratoga Special with wide, sweeping moves. Zavata had two chances to get to the outside; first when he checked leaving the seven-furlong chute entering the main track, and then midway on the far turn. Instead, he stayed inside, and didn't angle out until upper stretch. But, even when he did move out, he had no punch.

Zavata actually gave ground in the final furlong. So it's hard to accept his flat performance was entirely due to his unfamiliar trip.

As for Santa Catarina, she too was stymied on the inside behind the leaders into the stretch as Miss Houdini got the jump on her with a sweeping outside move to the front - although Santa Catarina had even more opportunity to get to the outside than Zavata did in the Hopeful. Then, after Santa Catarina moved out to pass tiring horses and go after Miss Houdini, she went back to the inside. Maybe Santa Catarina took the rider back to the inside, but if I have a horse who is rallying, I would much rather be outside. Moving back inside to rally is often a losing move. Santa Catarina did make it close, but that was mostly because Miss Houdini started to play around after she took command.

Miss Houdini started to swish her tail as though she completely lost focus, but I'm sure racing experience will address that matter.