08/26/2002 12:00AM

War Emblem gets some Eclipse competition


NEW YORK - Suddenly, the 3-year-old picture isn't the walkover it appeared to be after War Emblem added the Haskell to his two major victories earlier in the year, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Came Home struck a big blow in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Sunday, when he became the first member of this year's 3-year-old class to beat good older opponents in an important race, an achievement that should never be taken lightly. Add to that strong performances by Medaglia d'Oro and Repent in Saturday's Travers Stakes at Saratoga, and it now seems that War Emblem may have as much trouble holding on to his diminishing lead in the 3-year-old division as he did the narrow advantage he took into the stretch of the Pacific Classic before throwing in the towel.

Came Home ran a terrific race in the Pacific Classic, making a fool out of me, and others who thought he would never negotiate 1 1/4 miles in a big spot. Yes, he was nicely set up by his ill-fated rabbit, Bosque Redondo, who broke down after the finish. But Came Home was never that far off that strong early pace - he was never more than two lengths behind War Emblem in the early running - and yet he still had the constitution to kick home successfully. Came Home has now lost only twice in 11 starts, and it may be that he has been the most under appreciated horse in America. That should no longer be the case.

Going into the Pacific Classic there was speculation that War Emblem was a one-dimensional front-runner. If he is not the controlling speed, as he was in the Haskell, Preakness, Kentucky Derby, and Illinois Derby, he can't win. The Pacific Classic has now proved that.

Even though he was denied the early lead Sunday by Sky Jack and Bosque Redondo, War Emblem still sat a beautiful trip just off their duel.

Instead of capitalizing on his dream set-up, as most horses of real substance would, War Emblem chucked it in the stretch and checked in sixth. He even finished behind Bosque Redondo. Let's hope the talk about War Emblem being great, which somehow survived after his failure in the Belmont Stakes, will now stop or be taken for the two cents it's worth.

Medaglia d'Oro won the Travers and Repent finished second. Nevertheless, there may be an inclination to feel slightly let down because Medaglia d'Oro was hard pressed to score by "only" a half-length, while being impressed by the performance of Repent. The impression of Repent is largely on the money, but the impression of Medaglia d'Oro is not at all fair.

Medaglia d'Oro didn't blitz his field the way he did in the Jim Dandy three weeks before. He didn't win the way most expect a 3-5 shot to win. But, for a variety of reasons, Medaglia d'Oro's effort in the Travers was big, and no reason was more important than the pace of the race.

As is his wont, Medaglia d'Oro was out there mixing it up early through early fractions of 23.14 seconds, 46.82, and 1:11.53. Even on the face of it, those fractions are strong for a 1 1/4-mile race.

Yet, that doesn't do full justice to how demanding the pace really was.

Quest, who was a length behind Medaglia d'Oro in fourth after the first quarter-mile, wound up finishing sixth, beaten 14 1/2 lengths. Saint Marden, who was a half-length off Medaglia d'Oro in third through the opening half-mile, gave way to finish eighth, beaten 37 1/4 lengths. Shah Jehan, who narrowly led Medaglia d'Oro for nearly the first six furlongs, stopped to finish ninth and last, beaten 56 3/4 lengths.

Consider that Medaglia d'Oro survived a pace battle that shredded all the other pace players, and did so on a sloppy track he had no previous experience with, while also being cut up on his legs during the running. What he actually accomplished should be deeply appreciated.

As for Repent, the Travers pace clearly played to the advantage of his late-running style. The footing was in his favor, too, as he was much the best winning the Kentucky Jockey Club last fall over a similar sloppy surface.

However, for Repent to have gotten as close as he did was a real eye-opener. He was coming off a long layoff necessitated by ankle surgery, and he was returning in a situation that, despite some parallels, was nothing like the successful comeback by Farda Amiga a week earlier in the Alabama, because Farda Amiga faced nothing close to the class of a Medaglia d'Oro.

Repent had only four published workouts for the Travers, and until coming outside for the stretch drive, he did most of his rallying on the inside, where the going was probably the deepest. So, this one-time Kentucky Derby Future Book favorite, whose stock had fallen earlier this year after a couple of less than scintillating performances, now commands much greater respect.