09/19/2005 12:00AM

Weekend's best have more to prove


NEW YORK - Most of the time, when you get decisive winners in rich stakes - such as Folklore, Private Vow, and Shaniko last Saturday - the results have a ring of finality to them because they leave little or no room for question. But not now.

This time of year, knowing that a horse won a big race by a lot of lengths is only a prelude to the big question: What does this performance mean in the context of the Breeders' Cup?

In the case of Folklore, who surged to a 14-length win in the Matron Stakes at Belmont Park, many people might feel this race made her, at least for the time being, the favorite for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. That might be true, but that doesn't necessarily mean that Folklore has suddenly become a lock to win the Juvenile Fillies or that she has no other matters to address.

Two questions come to mind: Did her lengthy score in the Matron really signal a genuine breakthrough? Or, as big as Folklore's win was, did it only serve to boost the stock of Adieu, her chief rival, and who has taken two of three meetings from Folklore?

Certainly, it is impossible not to have more respect now for Adieu, who sat out this dance. Adieu defeated Folklore in the Astoria and Spinaway stakes, both times turning back stretch challenges from Folklore and drawing away late. It is important to remember that while Adieu doesn't have the big double-digit margin win that Folklore now has, she has, in their battles to this point, been Folklore's superior.

At the same time, there is every reason to believe that the light switch did suddenly click on for Folklore in the Matron. While it is true that Folklore had precious little to beat once the favored India failed to run even a remotely representative race, the weakness of the opposition did not make Folklore run any faster. Over a drying track that was a bit tricky to make speed figures for, Folklore completed seven furlongs in 1:23.70 and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 99. That is the highest for a 2-year-old filly so far this year, 19 points higher than Beau Dare's number in Saturday's Kentucky Cup Juvenile Fillies at Turfway Park and 18 points better than Folklore's previous career best.

One race after the Matron, Private Vow dominated Belmont's Futurity Stakes. His win margin of nine lengths was, at least to some extent, a function of the ineffectiveness of the four official starters who chased him home. But, this was Private Vow's third consecutive victory from four career starts, and it was kind of neat that in the end, he outfinished Disco's Son, who dumped his rider - Javier Castellano, who weighs 110 pounds - coming out of the gate. So Private Vow ran around the track carrying 110 pounds more than Disco's Son did. I believe that weight is a terribly overrated factor, but a 110-pound weight spread is hard to ignore.

Without question, Private Vow is now a more viable candidate for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile than he was before the Futurity. The issue with him, however, is that over a track that was probably the same in terms of relative speed as it was for the Matron, Private Vow took 0.35 seconds longer to complete his seven furlongs than Folklore. But as counterintuitive as it may seem, this may not be the negative you would expect it to be since the last four, and five of the last seven, Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winners went in faster time than the Juvenile winner did.

As for Shaniko, he was an overwhelming, 4 1/2-length winner of the Kentucky Cup Classic, a race that in its brief history has had an impact on the Breeders' Cup Classic. Kentucky Cup Classic winners Tabasco Cat, Silver Charm, and Roses in May went on to finish second in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and Captain Steve went on to finish third in the Classic.

In truth, the quality of this year's Kentucky Cup Classic, in a reflection of how this year's handicap division has been severely diminished by injury and retirement, was not up to usual standards. But this was Shaniko's third win from his last four starts, and it could be that he is finally delivering on the promise he offered early last year, when he was briefly considered a candidate for the Kentucky Derby.

The big question concerning Shaniko, and all of the winners of Saturday's Kentucky Cup races, is how much of a role Turfway's new Polytrack surface played in the outcome. It is a unique surface, and some horses - it appears those who fancy turf, in particular - will like it, while others won't. In the case of Shaniko, this was the fifth win of his career, and all five came at different tracks, so the Polytrack might well have played no role in his score. On the other hand, after being crushed in his three previous stakes attempts, this was Shaniko's first stakes victory.

So, like Folklore and Private Vow, Shaniko, despite his decisive win Saturday, still has questions to answer.