09/26/2002 12:00AM

Woodward figure may signal end of road

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Depending on what weather forecast is consulted, the spin-off from Tropical Storm Isidore was to bring light showers and/or torrential downpours on Thursday and Friday, before clearing out in time for Saturday's card at Belmont.

Belmont's sandy main track dries quickly, but whatever degree of moisture remains is a secondary factor in the Gold Cup. The key issue is what to make of Lido Palace, who three weeks ago joined Sword Dancer, Kelso, Forego, Slew o'Gold, and Cigar as back-to-back winners of the Woodward. Those are Hall of Fame names, but Lido Palace's history-making victory wasn't exactly one for the ages.

The Brooklyn-born Bobby Frankel grew up betting horses at Aqueduct, and by virtue of that misspent youth he is among a small cadre of trainers qualified to offer a legitimate handicapping opinion. The positive spin Frankel put on the Woodward is that Lido Palace broke from the rail and was up close to a fast pace while hemmed in along the inside. After that, he kicked in once taken to the outside and went about his business.

That assessment has some validity, because from a total-pace perspective Lido Palace's fall-off on Beyer Figures can be attributed to more early energy expended, at least to some extent. And he does seem to prefer racing outside of horses.

But there is still the visual impression of 2-5 favorite Lido Palace toiling on the turn, with Jorge Chavez resorting to the whip to get the horse motivated and receiving no response for a good quarter-mile. Had the Woodward been a handicap instead of weight-for-age, Lido Palace might not have overtaken 8-1 shot Gander in deep stretch to win by three-quarters of a length.

Interestingly, the New York-bred Gander was 41-1 when he lost the 2000 renewal of the Woodward by the same margin to Lemon Drop Kid, and a refresher on Lemon Drop Kid's fall campaign may shed some light on what to make of Lido Palace today.

Recall that Lemon Drop Kid was 3-5 and also towered over his Woodward field on paper after recording Beyers of 115, 117, and 118 to win the Brooklyn, Suburban, and Whitney handicaps, the last figure a lifetime best. Like Lido Palace, however, he was life and death to win, and his 105 Beyer for the race was identical to what Lido Palace received - right after running a lifetime-best 119 in the Whitney.

The benefit of 20-20 hindsight indicates Lemon Drop Kid was over the top. He ran another 105 running fifth in the Gold Cup at odds-on, and ran fifth again in the Breeders' Cup Classic before being retired.

If Lido Palace were in the midst of a strong campaign, handicappers might be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and expect a return to former heights in the Gold Cup.

But Lido Palace's desperate rally to get by Gander at equal weights was his first win since last year's Woodward, a stretch of five races that includes a lackluster fourth at 4-5 to begin the season. Now he must contend with Repent, who was forced to miss the Triple Crown races but returned in the Travers to run the race of his life. At a short price, handicappers can be merciless and forsake Lido Palace, and narrow their focus to the two remaining contenders, Repent and Milwaukee Brew, Frankel's second horse in the race.

Both are closers, but there is a crucial difference between the them: Repent's ability to get in gear before reaching the pace call.

In four of his five starts this year, Milwaukee Brew has been at least 10 lengths behind after six furlongs. That lack of positional speed was never more apparent than in the Pacific Classic, when he was 15 lengths behind on the backstretch and still 10th at the quarter pole.

Repent runs from off the pace too, but he has the ability to reach contention before reaching the stretch, which is a trait handicappers should demand from any off-the-pace horse being considered for play on American dirt tracks. He was 11 lengths behind early in the Travers, but by the time the field reached the quarter pole he had already whittled away nine lengths off the deficit, and he sustained the determined rally through the final quarter to miss by a half-length to Medaglia d'Oro, a classy colt who was coming off a supersonic 120 Beyer in the Jim Dandy.

Repent was trying to run down a Frankel-trained horse in the Travers, but in the Gold Cup he has enough tactical speed to have both of Frankel's horses trying to catch him in the stretch. One will be too far back, and the one coming off a suspect Woodward may be too far gone.