05/25/2004 11:00PM

What goes up doesn't always come way down


BOSTON - We all know how unpredictable the Thoroughbred animal can be. That's not news. But it's still a bit disconcerting when a horse suddenly - without any warning at all - spikes way up to a new blockbuster Beyer. Fortunately, this kind of out-of-the-blue leap up in speed figures is not all that common.

But there have been two recent high-level spikes that remind us that even the classiest, most consistent Thoroughbred can expand the boundaries of unpredictability.

Midway Road: While we were all fixated on the Triple Crown drama, Midway Road slipped under the radar with a 123 Beyer - the highest figure recorded in the past five years. It didn't come completely out of nowhere, but it was pretty close. As a 2-year-old, Midway Road showed tremendous promise, earning a 99 Beyer in an allowance race at Keeneland in October 2002. He was something of a disappointment as a 3-year-old, with a limited campaign of only five races. His best effort came in last year's Preakness, when he clunked up for second with a perfect trip, finishing nearly 10 lengths behind Funny Cide. That was his best Beyer of the year - another 99. He just didn't seem to be fulfilling his promise.

After a nine-month layoff, Midway Road returned to the races this spring as a 4-year-old in an optional claiming race at Fair Grounds. His 92 Beyer wasn't too bad under the circumstances, but it gave no indication of what was to come. On April 22 in the Ben Ali Stakes at Keeneland, Midway Road galloped home by more than 11 lengths. His Beyer: 123. Such a huge spike in his speed figure could not have been anticipated. But it could be explained, at least in part. Midway Road has real talent, and he stumbled upon optimal circumstances as the front-runner in a small field on a sloppy track. In his most recent effort, a second in the Pimlico Special (Beyer 115), Midway Road proved that while the 123 might have been the result of a very special set of conditions, it did announce his arrival as a major player in this year's handicap division.

Smarty Jones: There were no special circumstances to explain Smarty Jones's jump up to a 118 in his Preakness romp. It was just a more exaggerated version of that familiar wayward pattern of speed figures for many young, developing 3-year-olds. It was a freakish performance that could not be anticipated based on any of his previous victories. That he won the Preakness was certainly not a surprise. But how he won it certainly was a surprise. You could not have predicted such a huge figure after his very consistent pre-race Beyers of 108-107-107. Even his trainer, John Servis, seemed shocked at the explosiveness of Smarty Jones's performance. As a big backer of Rock Hard Ten, I certainly was shocked at the legendary caliber of that performance - and very much dismayed.

But before we all concede the Belmont Stakes to Smarty Jones and kick off the Triple Crown celebration, we should ask ourselves: Could Smarty Jones be another Funny Cide? After all, Funny Cide jumped up to a 114 Beyer in his galloping, awesome-looking demolition of last year's Preakness field.

Should we anticipate a similar regression with Smarty Jones that could trip him up in the Belmont? Perhaps. But few experienced handicappers liked Funny Cide in the Belmont. And for good reasons: He had been at least as lucky as he was good, with a perfect trip in the Kentucky Derby, defeating a weakened Empire Maker. When Peace Rules failed to fire in the Preakness, Funny Cide pounded a small and vulnerable field at Pimlico. The Belmont field was much tougher, with the sharp, healthy, and well-rested Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted ready to block the road to the Triple Crown. Funny Cide didn't run badly in the Belmont, but he faltered in deep stretch and disappointed the fond wishes of millions.

Fortunately for Smarty Jones (and even more millions of hopeful fans), this year's Belmont looks quite different. While it's not likely that Smarty Jones will repeat the eye-popping 118 Beyer he earned in the Preakness, he doesn't need to run nearly that fast in order to win the Belmont. Even if the extra distance should prove an obstacle - and even if he should suffer a sharp bounce - it's hard to see who is going to move up to challenge him.

Rock Hard Ten could improve substantially if he can work out a less absurd trip than he had at Pimlico. The Cliff's Edge could present a threat if he's back in full health and can repeat his big Beyer of 111 in the Blue Grass. But at this stage it all seems like wishful thinking. Only ill fortune or ill health can stop Smarty Jones at Belmont. Unless, of course, we encounter another outburst of radical unpredictability.