08/01/2002 12:00AM

Unexpected hurdle for Left Bank

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Saratoga is synonymous with quality racing. Always has been and always will be, in part because the people who own the good horses enjoy their visits to this pleasant spa.

Consider Saturday's $750,000 Whitney Handicap, with its field a virtual roster of the leaders of the handicap division. Street Cry, winner of the Dubai World Cup and the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs, is widely acclaimed as the best horse in training. Lido Palace, winner of last year's Whitney, was a threatening second in the recent Suburban and has Bob Frankel's magic touch working for him. Macho Uno, a winner of more than $1.7 million, is in sharp form this season. It isn't likely you could get these three together before the Breeders' Cup Classic anywhere but Saratoga.

Despite their stature, we were picking against them earlier this week. Like many others we thought that Left Bank's brilliant speed could produce an upset, even though the 5-year-old son of French Deputy has stayed the nine furlongs only once. However the complexion of the Whitney changed significantly Thursday morning when Allen Jerkens entered Saint Verre. Like Left Bank, Saint Verre has a high turn of speed, setting up the prospect of a duel that would be disastrous for both.

"In a perfect world Left Bank would be the only speed in the race, would control the pace, and would win," trainer Todd Pletcher philosophized at the barn Thursday morning. "He would also have drawn outside of Saint Verre. But we know the world isn't perfect, so we have to deal with things the way they come up."

Breaking from post 1, Left Bank has few options. He has to come out running or risk being shuffled back to a disastrous position. If he has a good break, his chances will probably depend on how much pressure Saint Verre puts on him.

Left Bank, a $600,000 purchase at Calder for Michael Tabor of Thunder Gulch fame, is an interesting fellow who comes out every morning for training and stares intently at everything, as though he had never seen it before. But he can run, and that makes up for some harmless quirks. He has earned more than $950,000 and will pass the million-dollar mark if he finishes as good as third in the Whitney.

Left Bank was brilliant last fall in the seven-furlong Vosburgh, beating the sprint chammpion, Squirtle Squirt, and equalling a track record. He was impressive again last month in the seven-furlong Tom Fool, setting a track record of 1:20 and winning by more than six lengths. He also accounted for the Grade 1 Cigar Mile, and Pletcher feels his class can carry him another furlong, provided he hasn't been squeezed dry by Saint Verre.

However the Whitney plays out, Left Bank or any other challenger faces a daunting stretch challenge from Street Cry, Lido Palace, and Macho Uno, three accomplished professionals. The Whitney promises to be something special.

Worth reading

Eighty-three years ago Friday - Aug. 2, 1919 - a handsome chesnut colt named Man o' War won the United States Hotel Stakes at Saratoga to notch his sixth victory without a defeat.

He was already the talk of the American turf and 11 days after the U.S. Hotel Stakes, he was sent off at 1-2 in the Sanford Memorial.

The shocking story of the upset by Upset is one of the richest chapters in American racing history and makes for fascinating reading in a new book by veteran turf writer Bill Heller "Graveyard of Champions" ($24.95, The Blood-Horse, Lexington, Ky.). Man o' War won 21 of 22 career starts but the account of his lone defeat is one of the most absorbing aspects of his colorful story.

Heller also writes of the surprising victory at 100-1 of Jim Dandy in the Travers Stakes of 1930 at the expense of Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox. Another interesting section deals with the defeat at 2-5 of the great filly Princess Doreen in the Alabama Stakes of 1924 by Priscilla Ruley. Priscilla Ruley and Gallant Fox were both trained by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons.

Heller also writes with style and wit of the modern day upsets, including the defeat of Conquistador Cielo in the Travers Stakes of 1982 when Runaway Groom made a dramatic charge through the stretch to beat a colt who had just been syndicated for $36 million. "Graveyard of Champions" is delightful reading. For anyone with an interest in Thoroughbred racing we can recommend it highly.