07/29/2004 11:00PM

Two juvenile stakes, one brilliant win


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The first two juvenile stakes of the Saratoga meeting were a study in contrast in terms of pace, time, and quality. There was one brilliant performance, but it wasn't the one that looked the most dramatic at first glance.

The Schuylerville for 2-year-old fillies on opening day dazzled the crowd because Classic Elegance was 5 1/2 lengths back with a furlong to go and got up to win by a length. Her stretch run was widely described with adjectives such as dazzling and improbable, and some commentators pronounced her a budding superstar for her eye-catching late run.

The clock suggests the whole thing was an optical illusion and that Classic Elegance is useful and professional but no monster.

On a drying-out track that was producing average sprint times throughout the day, Classic Elegance ran the six furlongs of the Schuylerville in a very ordinary 1:12.48. This was good for a Beyer Speed Figure of only 78, and even that may have been a smidge generous. Earlier in the day, a colt named Creative Dance ran only a length slower winning a statebred maiden race in 1:12.65 while older $50,000 claimers were timed in 1:10.33.

But what about that 5 1/2-length gain in the final furlong that stirred dreams of glory from those who believe time only matters when you're in jail? The reason not to get too excited is that the final eighth was run in 14.01 seconds, meaning that Classic Elegance was hardly accelerating brilliantly to pick up 5 1/2 lengths. Angel Trumpet, who carved out the fractions of 21.80 and 45.49, was looking for a place to lie down after her early efforts and came home in over 14 seconds. Pat Day, who rode the winner, noted that Angel Trumpet was "coming back [to me] pretty significantly."

The most striking thing about the Schuylerville was that Angel Trumpet held second and no one else could gain ground on her. It was simply a race where no one but the first two finishers ran a lick. Classic Elegance, now 3 for 4 with victories in the Churchill Debutante and the Schuylerville, may be the leader of the division, but she'll have to improve significantly to hold that position.

The track was playing a full second faster the next afternoon when the colts came out for the Sanford, but not three full seconds faster, which is how Afleet Alex's winning time came up against the Schuylerville. Afleet Alex set a stakes record of 1:09.32, winning by 5 1/4 lengths, and was even more impressive than the final time suggests.

Afleet Alex had won his two previous starts, at Delaware Park, by a combined 23 1/4 lengths, earning strong but not freakish Beyers of 80 and 88. Despite the margins, neither performance was a speed-crazy dash, as he broke fourth and did not take the lead until just after a half-mile each time.

In the Sanford, he broke fifth and settled nicely while Jeremy Rose waited for the early traffic to clear and found a clear path on the outside. In the blink of an eye, he circled the leaders as if they were standing still, reaching the front through a half in 45.58, and then the fun really began. Just as Tom Durkin declared the race "wide open," Afleet Alex kicked away from the field, running his fifth and six furlongs in 11.68 and 12.06 for a sensational final quarter of 23.74. The race earned a lofty Beyer of 101.

Trainer Tim Ritchey, invoking the cautious modesty of old-time trainers, called Afleet Alex a "nice" horse who he hopes turns into a "very nice" horse. Rose was more effusive, calling him "a beast." This was a powerhouse performance for July, and Afleet Alex should be odds-on when he returns in this year's early Hopeful on Aug. 21. An additional furlong is well within his reach given his relaxed early demeanor and powerful finishes.

Looking for trouble? The $75,000 son of Northern Afleet and the Hawkster mare Maggy Hawk is a full brother to Unforgettable Max, a very fast horse and graded-stakes placed, but a certified sprinter.

We can worry about that later. For now, there is a special 2-year-old on the loose, and that's a big part of what Saratoga is all about. The last 2-year-old who looked this good at Saratoga was the first-time starter who won his debut by a dozen lengths last August, earning a Beyer of 99. He went on to win the Champagne and didn't do much between then and June 5, but then the colt named Birdstone won the Belmont and denied Smarty Jones the Triple Crown.