01/13/2003 12:00AM

A triumph of adaptation

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NEW YORK - Things will get a lot tougher for Pass Rush on Feb. 1 in Santa Anita's Strub Stakes, in which he will face Medaglia d'Oro. By the end of 2002, Medaglia d'Oro was the steadiest, if not the best, 3-year-old in this country. And Medaglia d'Oro will be fresh. A fresh Medaglia d'Oro showed what he is capable of when he so thoroughly dominated the Jim Dandy Stakes last summer.

Until then, however, Pass Rush has earned the right to boast about his victory in the San Fernando Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita on Saturday. He didn't defeat the best San Fernando field ever assembled, but he was still impressive, not only for shipping across country and winning with authority, but also for winning in a somewhat unexpected way.

It is always worth remembering that racehorses have running styles with which they are most comfortable and effective. Generally speaking, there are three styles: speed horses, stalkers, and closers. In assessing past performances, handicappers should always be aware when a horse varies from his established style. On some occasions, a sudden change in style will be a warning sign. If a horse with natural speed suddenly fails to show that speed with no apparent mitigating circumstance, it is often an indication that the horse has lost form.

But, more often, a sudden change of running style is a sign of major improvement. When a confirmed closer gets into the race earlier with an unexpected show of early speed not attributable to slow fractions, handicappers will give that horse extra points next time out, even if he should fade late. If, with that change of style, that closer manages to maintain, or improve, his position, he will get a lot of extra points next time.

Likewise, a speed horse whose change of style is attributable to extenuating circumstances should be viewed more favorably next time, no matter how he performed. Most of us forgive a speed horse who stumbled at the start last time out, even if he was beaten the length of the stretch. And we all love any speed horse who races respectably after stumbling out of the gate. Along the same lines, speed horses who are taken back, say, to avoid an insane speed duel, and still run well, also get a big boost from handicappers next time out. Pass Rush falls into this category.

On paper, Pass Rush looked like the dominant speed in the San Fernando. He either set or contested the pace in two stakes and a white-hot allowance race in his previous three starts, which resulted in a win and two sharp seconds, and which echoed the best previous performances of his career. Of the seven who lined up against Pass Rush in the San Fernando, the only one who had previously made the lead in the first call of his running lines was Tizbud, who did so when he won his maiden in his last start.

Now, the pace in maiden races isn't nearly as hot as the pace in the races Pass Rush was coming out of, and Pass Rush broke from the gate in the San Fernando cleanly enough. Yet Tizbud got in front of Pass Rush in the run to the first turn, and Traditional, who hadn't been on the lead in any of his three career starts, was in front of both of them, showing additional speed with blinkers on (as horses often do) and being sent for his life by his jock.

This huge strategical advantage that Pass Rush enjoyed on paper as the controlling speed was lost, and if he were to win, he simply would have to be the best. As it turned out, he proved much the best. After being floated four wide on the first turn, Pass Rush and his jockey, Corey Nakatani, remained patient as Mananan McLir made a premature move to the lead on the rail into the far turn. Continuing four wide, Pass Rush overwhelmed the rest of the field, surging to the front nearing the stretch and scoring by an emphatic 3 1/2 lengths.

Although Pass Rush may find his task to be a lot tougher when he faces Medaglia d'Oro in the Strub, Medaglia d'Oro will be facing a much-improved competitor.

Hal's Hope unfolded unpredictably

Talking about change of running styles, that was the story of Saturday's Hal's Hope Handicap at Gulfstream, a prep for Donn Handicap on Feb. 22. First, Hail the Chief outran sprinters Speed Hunter and Dream Run for the lead. In the meantime, speedy router Najran made his move from fifth, and front-running router Saint Verre made a big run from last in the field of eight.

Into this upside-down event, it was Windsor Castle who made the winning move. He was one of the few here who stuck to his guns, rallying from well off the pace, and he was able to outkick the rest. But the fact that former front-runner Saint Verre was a solid second makes you think that there will be others to loom in the Donn.