02/26/2008 1:00AM

War Pass looks like real deal


NEW YORK - It is not easy resisting the temptation to make more out of War Pass's successful start to his 3-year-old campaign in an allowance race Sunday at Gulfstream Park than what it deserves. After all, considering the four "manes and tails" who lined up against him - actually, the connections of those four deserve a tip of the cap for their sportsmanship - War Pass would have had to have fallen down to lose. And given the way he performed, War Pass could have gotten back up after falling and might still have won.

Fortunately, things went much smoother than that for War Pass. As is his custom, he set the pace, this time under restraint, and ran splits of 23.94 seconds, 22.78, and 25.18 (which was around the far turn) before finishing up very nicely under no urging whatsoever with a final quarter-mile in 24.48.

After having not raced since his dominating score in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile four months ago, this was just what War Pass needed to knock off the rust. This outing primes him for the Tampa Bay Derby on March 15, which will advance him to his final Kentucky Derby prep, the Wood Memorial. Sunday's race was a building block, and nothing more.

So why is it still so tempting to go gaga over this colt? We all know how horses have an uncanny knack of making us eventually look foolish. You're probably doing well if for every one potential superstar you peg correctly, there is only one you're wrong about.

In the case of War Pass, there are some questions concerning distance ability that have been widely discussed. While he won the BC Juvenile easily in his only race around two turns, it is also important to remember that he did shake loose early over a very sloppy track that several behind him that day might not have handled. It has been repeatedly noted that War Pass is a son of Cherokee Run, who in his racing days was a champion sprinter and essentially a miler. Although pedigree doesn't seem nearly as important in regard to the Kentucky Derby as it used to be, Cherokee Run is certainly not known for siring 1o1/4-mile horses.

Forget about the Derby. The competition for War Pass will soon get a lot tougher, and it's not inconceivable that he could come a cropper at nine furlongs, especially if some poor opponent is sacrificed by running with him early. Hey, we don't even know how War Pass would react if denied the early lead, because it hasn't happened yet.

But then you watch War Pass run like he did Sunday and all these points seem inconsequential. Why is that?

Here's why: War Pass has a certain undeniable aura about him. He evokes the kind of passions that very few horses over the course of a lifetime are capable of stirring. War Pass is fast, he's dominant, and he hasn't taken the easy road. He won the first two starts of his career at Saratoga, the best race meet in this country. He then won the storied Champagne Stakes before romping in the BC Juvenile, by far the most important race run so far for his generation. His trainer, Nick Zito, calls him a "special horse." And for all of Zito's "Yogi Berra-isms," let's not forget that he should know a special horse when he sees one. Beyond winning two Kentucky Derbies, Zito has trained enough important horses to be in the Hall of Fame.

Although the Fountain of Youth was a more important event than War Pass's virtual walkover, War Pass overshadowed it. He made the horses who proved to be the prominent players in the Fountain of Youth look extremely pale by comparison. War Pass made them look like they have a very long way to go to get to where he is already.

Nevertheless, the Fountain of Youth was interesting, if on a lesser scale. Cool Coal Man, a stablemate of War Pass, capitalized on a perfect inside-out trip from just off the pace to notch his fourth win from his last five starts, all around two turns. Some might be inclined to devalue Cool Coal Man's victory, because he drew clear from Elysium Fields in midstretch, but Elysium Fields came back again on him late, and Cool Coal Man prevailed by only a half-length. Elysium Fields, who has improved since getting blinkers, was certainly game, especially after switching to the outside of Cool Coal Man late. But I had the distinct impression the finish was that close because Cool Coal Man seemed to lose focus and let up after he opened his clear lead. He might have had more left than it appears.

But it was Court Vision's third-place finish in the Fountain of Youth that will likely elicit the biggest difference of opinion. Court Vision tried to rally from last into fractions that might not have been as unfavorable for him as first thought. In fact, depending on what you believe, the fractions might have been in Court Vision's favor. The initial fractions and final time of 25.78, 49.27, 1:13.19, 1:38.31, and 1:51.85 were determined to be wrong because of a timing error. Bernie Hettel, Gulfstream racing operations manager, hand-timed the replay on Monday and the fractions and final time were changed to 24.03, 47.62, 1:11.52, 1:36.32, and 1:50.07. Either way, Court Vision couldn't do it, though there will be those who will give him another chance. On the other hand, Court Vision was beaten slightly more than six lengths, and did little to suggest that his victory in the Remsen last fall wasn't anything more than an extremely slow win in an extremely weak running of that event.