07/06/2004 12:00AM

Turf males lack true leader


NEW YORK - Three of the four big stakes in Saturday's NTRA National Pick 4 were run on the turf, which helped put into focus the current state of the grass division. And, if you think the 3-year-old filly division is in a state of disarray, as detailed in this space last week, take a look at the male turf division. To sum up the division, it's a mess.

Meteor Storm had a great chance to establish command of the male turf division in Saturday's United Nations at Monmouth Park. Meteor Storm came from California - where the male turf division this year is uncharacteristically soft - for last month's Manhattan Handicap off two Grade 2 wins at Santa Anita. He took the Grade 1 Manhattan in good style, then came back from California in an attempt to make the U.N. his fourth straight stakes victory and his second consecutive Grade 1 score. But he was inexplicably flat, finishing seventh as the favorite.

Despite failing on Saturday to show the consistency that is required of genuinely top horses, Meteor Storm may still be the pro-tem leader of his division. But if he is, it is only by default. It is only because the rest of his contemporaries have failed to step up to the plate in a meaningful way.

That goes for Request for Parole, a nice, hard-trying performer who won the U.N. after finally getting the kind of clean trip that has often eluded him. That was especially the case when he was a troubled fifth behind Meteor Storm in the Manhattan. On the other hand, Request for Parole has also lost more than half his career turf starts (seven of 12), and even with some excuses, that kind of failure rate does not elicit the kind of respect deserving of true top horses.

The same can be said for Hard Buck, who showed potential winning the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap and finishing a close second in the Dubai Sheema Classic earlier in the year. With Meteor Storm's no-show Saturday, Hard Buck had a sweet opportunity to capitalize in the U.N. but instead responded with a no-excuse fifth.

Other prominent members of the male turf division similarly fail to inspire confidence. Sabiango shocked a less-than-vintage field at 13-1 in the Grade 1 Charlie Whittingham Handicap last month at Hollywood Park. But, when Sabiango's record is viewed in full context, it shouldn't surprise anyone if he came back and lost by double digits the next time he races.

And then there's Stroll, who looked like the goods when he won the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve at Churchill Downs on Derby Day but came back with a meek sixth as the strong favorite in the Manhattan. I suppose we should feel bad for him. That Manhattan effort must have taken more out of him than we realize. Stroll apparently needs a nice rest and won't race again until the fall.

With the way the game has evolved over the last 20 years, the real turf season doesn't begin until next month's Arlington Million. It is from that point on that turf championships are decided. Still, those major turf races are just around the corner. And when looking down the road at them, you would have to wonder whether any of the horses discussed here will turn out to be major players. If I were a European horseman with a horse of any ability, I would be making my shipping plans right now.

Conversely, this year's sprint division seems to be unusually strong and deep, with horses like Pico Central, Strong Hope, Speightstown, and Alke. A horse like Cajun Beat, winner of last fall's Breeders' Cup Sprint, is now looking up at the division leadership. On Sunday at Belmont Park, Ghostzapper demanded that his name be included among the division's best with a fast and overwhelming victory in the Grade 2 Tom Fool Handicap in his first appearance since September.

Even last year at age 3, Ghostzapper was already one of the better sprinters in the nation, evidenced by a sensational victory in the Grade 1 Vosburgh. But, it should be noted that he was kept sprinting partly because his 2003 campaign was compromised by fits and starts, and his trainer, Bobby Frankel, had lots of other horses for the top middle-distance stakes races.

As a son of Breeders' Cup Classic winner Awesome Again, Ghostzapper is bred to be more than a sprinter. And, he is not really a Breeders' Cup Sprint-type horse because six furlongs in a full field would be tough for a deep closer like him. With the retirement of Medaglia d'Oro, Frankel isn't as knee-deep in top-class distance males this year - although he did saddle Peace Rules for a courageous win in Saturday's Suburban Handicap at Belmont. So, I would love to see Frankel go ahead and stretch Ghostzapper out this year. The result could be something special.