02/06/2006 12:00AM

Two who didn't disappear for good

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Well, that's a relief. Apparently there is life after the Triple Crown, after all.

America's most famous Thoroughbred competition rarely leaves much in the way of residual racing value, once the preps are finished and the sun sets on the second Saturday in June. The principals usually leave the stage - for surgical procedures, stud duty, or both - while the also-rans fade away, rarely to be heard from again, and prompting the widely held notion that "maybe they weren't the best of the crop anyway."

How would we ever know?

Available data from the last decade tends to warn toward prudence where the Triple Crown is concerned. Horses of the Year Saint Liam, Ghostzapper, Mineshaft, Tiznow, and Cigar were never involved in anything resembling a Kentucky Derby, Preakness, or Belmont Stakes as early 3-year-olds. Neither, for that matter, was the filly Azeri.

It is rare, therefore, to witness two refugees from the previous year's Triple Crown stepping up with such authority to announce their intentions as 4-year-olds, as was the case Saturday at Santa Anita, when High Limit was so impressive in the nine-furlong Strub Stakes and Giacomo was a perfectly acceptable third.

The pair had last crossed paths at Pimlico in the 2005 Preakness Stakes, playing part of the chorus to the scenery-chewing dramatics supplied by Afleet Alex and Scrappy T. For the record, Giacomo was a nonthreatening third and High Limit a spent fifth after setting the pace to the final turn.

Before that, the two colts were the yin and yang of the Derby - first and 20th - with Giacomo wearing the roses and High Limit bleeding from various scrapes and cuts suffered during the unavoidable chaos of a 20-horse first turn.

"It was a bad enough thing that the vet described it to my racing manager as, 'Imagine if someone hit you in the leg with a baseball bat. How well do you think you'd run?' " said Gary West, who owns High Limit with his wife, Mary. "That kind of put it in perspective for us."

Fortunately, the damage was not severe enough for High Limit to abandon his 3-year-old campaign. However, the bloom of his early record, which included a victory in the Louisiana Derby, wilted badly after losses at Delaware, Saratoga, and Del Mar. By Labor Day he had disappeared from the radar.

"I'm not so sure that we might have leaned on him a little bit early on in the game," West conceded. "You get caught up sometimes in that Derby stuff. Bobby [Frankel] continued to insist he was a good horse, so he gave him time to mature and come into himself, and it looks like it has helped him a lot."

High Limit is an easy horse to like. He's a classic blood bay with black points, not overly tall or stout, boasting a gorgeous shoulder and a deep, broad chest that obviously houses ample lung and heart capacity. As with all horses trained by Frankel and his crew, High Limit comes over with his tail bobbed straight and his attitude all business, especially now that he has been allowed to reveal his potential.

High Limit is a son of Maria's Mon and a grandson of Known Fact, giving him at least a theoretical right to get nine to 10 furlongs. Based on his post-Triple Crown failures, however, there was a lingering sensation that seven furlongs to 1 1/16 miles would be his game, especially if he insisted on making all the running.

His first start of the year in the 8 1/2-furlong San Pasqual Handicap did nothing to dispel that notion. Facing a modest bunch of older runners, High Limit jumped to the lead and held on to win over Buckland Manor, a generous chestnut who always lets the other guy go first. But then came the Strub, in which High Limit sat serenely behind a hot pace before igniting to win by 4 1/2 lengths over the upstart Cal-bred, Top This and That.

"He passed horses for the first time today," West noted. "This brings a whole new dimension to the horse, one that will benefit him for the rest of the season."

As for third-place Giacomo, the last time any group of backers was this hyped about getting beat was among the Gene McCarthy camp, after their man finished second to President Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 New Hampshire primary. Trainer John Shirreffs called it "perfect," racing manager Dottie Ingordo (aka Mrs. Shirreffs) was "delighted," and presumably owners Jerry and Ann Moss uncorked the bottle of Cristal reserved for the promising return of all their Kentucky Derby winners.

In fact, Giacomo ran a very good race, facing combat for the first time since the 2005 Belmont Stakes. While High Limit was cruising along in the clear and taking command as Patrick Valenzuela pleased, the Derby winner was leaned on coming away from the gate, squeezed into the first turn, boxed for most of the backstretch, and then forced to alter course in the stretch to make his final run. In other words, welcome back to the big leagues.

Best of all, no one mentioned Dubai, the World Cup, or the $6 million dangling out there in the desert, half a world away. High Limit and Giacomo, gallant survivors of the Triple Crown, will meet next in the Santa Anita Handicap on March 4, for a very spendable $1 million in purses and all the history they can handle.