09/01/2002 11:00PM

Two sharp-looking youngsters

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Outstanding performances by a talented colt and filly highlighted the closing weekend of a memorable meeting. The victories of Sky Mesa in the Grade 1 Hopeful and Awesome Humor in the Grade 1 Spinaway appear likely to cast a long shadow over the major 2-year-old racing this fall.

Sky Mesa, a big, strong bay colt by Pulpit out of stakes-winning Caress, was impressive in his debut here several weeks ago, winning by almost eight lengths in good time. But it was only one race, and the well-seasoned favorite, Zavata, galloping winner of the Tremont and Saratoga Special, seemed to have too much experience for him and the others.

Things went badly for the odds-on Zavata, however. He got away poorly, was shuffled back, and lost position. He had to check behind horses turning for home and came outside three horses in midstretch to challenge, but flattened out and had to settle for third.

Sky Mesa, on the other hand, had a good trip from the outside post position in a field of six. Jockey Edgar Prado got him to settle just off a lively pace that went a quarter-mile in 22.41 seconds and a half-mile in 45.61. He took command inside the eighth pole and held Pretty Wild safe to register by almost two lengths. It was a first-class performance for a colt who is still learning his trade, and his trainers, John and Donna Ward, were delighted.

"He was sick with a virus after his first race, and we were very careful with his training," John Ward said. "The early fractions of the Hopeful were fast, but the head-on shot of the replay confirmed that he finished straight, and we were very pleased with that. They tend to stagger when fatigued.

"We're thinking of the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland for his next start, leading to the Breeders' Cup," Ward continued. "It's a two-turn race, which we want, and he is familiar with the track, having trained there last spring. We feel he'll show improvement off the Hopeful. We regret the decision to run the Breeders' Cup 2-year-old races at nine furlongs instead of a mile. That may be a little too far for young horses. There should be a lot of late developments in the division this fall because of the virus, which hit stables around the world."

Sky Mesa was purchased at Keeneland for $750,000 by John and Debby Oxley, who won the Kentucky Derby with Monarchos and may have a good prospect for a second classic. Zavata deserves another chance off his fine record but Sky Mesa has introduced an element of doubt into the picture.

Where Sky Mesa was impressive in the Hopeful, Awesome Humor dominated the Spinaway. A Distorted Humor filly, undefeated after four starts including three stakes, she powered to the lead at the start from post 1, held the edge through fractions of 22.05 seconds for the quarter and 45.15 for the half-mile, and continued strongly to tally by almost three lengths.

"I was concerned about the inside post and those fast early fractions," trainer Elliott Walden commented. "But she is a complete professional and took those challenges in stride. Now we're thinking of Keeneland's Alcibiades, a two-turn race, for her next start as a stepping-stone to the Breeders' Cup. Like some others, we'd have favored the mile distance for the Breeders' Cup 2-year-old races. Nine furlongs is asking a lot of young horses."

Awesome Humor is owned by Kenny Troutt and Bill Casner, who stand Awesome Humor's sire, the stakes-winning Distorted Humor, at their WinStar Farm in Kentucky. They purchased Awesome Humor privately after her second start and appear to have hit a 10 strike.

Bob Lee gone

The racing community lost a valued friend and a staunch supporter when Bob Lee, owner of the Wishing Well restaurant near Saratoga, died Sunday morning after a long illness.

Lee loved racing and racing people and served the sport well during his terms on the New York State Racing Commission. He was a gracious host to fans and horsemen at the restaurant he ran so well with his wife, Brenda, and family. He will be missed more than words can convey.