03/17/2008 11:00PM

War Pass draws new comparison


NEW YORK - One of the smartest pieces of advice I ever received was offered more years ago than I care to reveal by the great Joe Hirsch. Joe, who as longtime executive columnist for this paper set the standard for racing journalism, told me that when a good horse runs badly, there is always a legitimate reason.

As I sat in shock Saturday afternoon watching War Pass for the first time in his career giving up the ghost and finishing last of seven as the 1-20 favorite in the Tampa Bay Derby, Joe's words of wisdom came flooding back.

Think what you will about War Pass, but he certainly was, at least until Saturday, a very good horse and a thoroughly deserving champion last year.

So there must be a good reason for War Pass's astonishingly poor effort in Tampa, right? Well, if there is, it hasn't surfaced. It was reported Sunday that War Pass remains on the road to the Kentucky Derby and that the only apparent injuries he sustained Saturday were some cuts on his leg. That's good news. That means War Pass still has an opportunity to fulfill his potential, and there is still a chance to witness a classic confrontation between the speed of War Pass and the closing kick of Pyro in the Triple Crown races. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Not to be a Gloomy Gus, but we don't yet know that the reason this colt gave way on Saturday was nothing more than some leg cuts or the fever, pointed out by owner Robert LaPenta after the race, that War Pass had earlier in the week. The reasons why a good horse runs poorly are not always readily apparent, nor are the things that can preclude a horse from re-establishing himself as a top Kentucky Derby prospect, competing in the Derby, or even enjoying a full racing career.

Whatever the explanation, it has to be more than War Pass simply being denied the early lead for the first time after being put in tight by the aggressive riders of a 57-1 shot and an 84-1 shot. But this much is clear: The aura that surrounded War Pass and his reputation will never quite be the same. Before Saturday, the career of War Pass seemed analogous to Seattle Slew, while at this moment it seems more analogous to Devil's Bag.

The parallel between War Pass and Seattle Slew was not at all far-fetched. Both began their careers with decisive maiden wins followed by romps at the allowance level. Both won the Champagne Stakes, a race that in Seattle Slew's days was a champion maker, while War Pass went on to easily win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, the champion maker for today's 2-year-old males. Both began their 3-year-old campaigns in Florida with easy one-turn allowance wins. Both were short-bred on top, and both dominated with speed. But Seattle Slew never lost before the Kentucky Derby and went on to become the first horse to sweep the Triple Crown while remaining undefeated. And Seattle Slew underscored his greatness with a 4-year-old campaign that, despite being compromised by illness, was spectacular.

The new parallel between War Pass and Devil's Bag seems almost eerie and a touch foreboding. Both began their careers with maiden wins at Saratoga, both followed with allowance romps, and while Devil's Bag squeezed in a victory in the Cowdin Stakes, both won the Champagne, which, in Devil's Bag's case, was the last year the Champagne was not overshadowed by the Breeders' Cup. And both concluded their championship 2-year-old seasons with successful first attempts around two turns, Devil's Bag in the Laurel Futurity and War Pass in the Breeders' Cup.

Both War Pass and Devil's Bag began their 3-year-old seasons with easy one-turn scores in Florida, and then both were beaten for the first time as the prohibitive favorites when they stretched back out to two turns in their second starts at 3. For Devil's Bag, that happened in the old Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah, in which he gave way after contesting the pace to finish a soundly beaten fourth in a performance that carried with it just about the same shock value as War Pass's in Tampa.

From there, Devil's Bag was to have attempted a rebound in the Gotham Stakes, which in those days was run on Aqueduct's main track. But the main track wasn't in racing shape, and the Gotham was moved to the inner track. Woody Stephens, Devil's Bag's Hall of Fame trainer, did not want to run the prized colt on the inner track, so he took Devil's Bag to Kentucky. There, Devil's Bag outclassed a weak field in the Forerunner Purse at Keeneland, and he then had to work surprisingly hard to win the subsequent Derby Trial at Churchill Downs. The Derby Trial ultimately proved to be Devil's Bag's final start due to a knee chip - a chip, as Joe Hirsch wrote in his recap of the 1984 racing season in the 1985 American Racing Manual, that Stephens in retrospect thought had occurred the instant Devil's Bag gave way in the Flamingo. As a 2-year-old, Devil's Bag was the epitome of brilliance in a racehorse, but he never achieved the greatness that until the Flamingo had seemed a formality.

Can War Pass escape the Devil's Bag parallel? Of course he can. But like Devil's Bag, War Pass is scheduled to attempt to rebound in New York, in the Wood Memorial, and I just can't help but wonder.