10/09/2002 12:00AM

Unimpressive time, slow finish: Perfect!


LEXINGTON, Ky. - The moment I watched Sky Mesa finish the final sixteenth of Saturday's Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland in 7.22 seconds, I knew what to do with him in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Make him my choice.

On the basis of time alone, the move seems unwise - supporting a horse who in his two-turn debut finished more like a typical claimer than a possible champion. He did, after all, take 1:46.78 to complete 1 1/16 miles, the slowest time in the Breeders' Futurity since it was moved to 1 1/16 miles in 1981.

But he ran as fast as he needed. In fact, he ran four lengths faster than what was necessary to win.

That is the encouraging part. Despite loafing and gawking from the turn through the stretch, he was good enough to whip Grade 2 Bashford Manor winner Lone Star Sky.

"He made every mistake a young horse could make and he still got it done," winning trainer John Ward said after the race. "He relaxed too much around the half-mile pole and he was pricking his ears down the lane. Even though he trains at Keeneland, he's not used to having 20,000 people watching him."

He had better get used to an audience. There will be many more fans at Arlington for the Breeders' Cup, and they will cause just as much of a ruckus as the crowd at Keeneland.

So why should things be different in Chicago, racing over 1 1/8 miles in the Juvenile? Experience. Sky Mesa has every right to learn from this two-turn race, and even if he doesn't, jockey Edgar Prado should.

"When I hit the pedal, he gave me what he had," said Prado. "He made the lead easy, but maybe that wasn't a good thing. He does better with horses to run at."

That competition will be there in the Juvenile, and following the experience at Keeneland, Prado figures to sit chilly and not urge Sky Mesa too quickly to the lead.

All these factors make Sky Mesa a likely winner. What makes him a good bet?

The ordinary 93 Beyer Speed Figure he earned in the Breeders' Futurity. That, as well as the slow time and immaturity he displayed, should have some supporters jumping off his bandwagon. Quickly forgotten will be his dominant Hopeful score and undefeated record.

That's because in the eyes of some handicappers, he showed flaws over a distance of ground. I'm glad he did.

His main opponents also have much to prove. Whywhywhy hasn't yet raced around two turns, and Vindication has never been tested against a colt that would be considered among the top 10 juveniles in the country.

Their shortcomings may be exposed in the Juvenile. Sky Mesa, at least, has three weeks to work on his flaws.

He reminds me a great deal of champion Countess Diana, who won unimpressively in Keeneland's Alicibiades before taking the Juvenile Fillies by 8 1/2 lengths in 1997.

On the heels of an 85 Beyer and slow closing splits, she suddenly became the favorite everyone was trying to beat in the Breeders' Cup. Instead of starting at 6-5, which she deserved to be, she drifted to 2-1.

The good news is that the price on Sky Mesa should be larger than that. Vindication was favored over him in the Breeders' Cup Future pool in September (7-2 compared to 9-2), and following the Breeders' Futurity, Sky Mesa is no longer as hot in the public eye as he once was. That may create overlaid odds on him.

Remember this: Before Sky Mesa, the slowest 1 1/16-mile time for a Breeders' Futurity winner belonged to Tasso, who went the distance in 1:46. Tasso later won the 1985 Juvenile, edging Storm Cat.

Sometimes a slow race just means an off day, not a slow horse. Sky Mesa may prove that belief in a few weeks.