11/01/2007 12:00AM

You gotta have speed to sprint at the Big A

EmailOZONE PARK, N.Y. - It seems like it was just yesterday that Aqueduct's spring meet concluded back in May, but here we are again for another six-month stretch of racing. Belmont-Saratoga-Belmont went by in a blur, and it's as if we never left the Big A. Although form has yet to settle down - favorites won just 8 of the first 53 races - there's one handicapping standby bettors have been able to rely on: early speed has been as formidable as ever on the main track.

Five straight front-running winners on opening day reminded everyone of the power of early speed at Aqueduct, and the trend has been particularly strong at distances up to seven furlongs. Horses with the early lead or forcing the pace less than a half-length from the lead won 23 of the first 31 sprints (74 percent) at distances up to seven furlongs. Many of them didn't just win, they positively romped - S.S. Belle by 14 lengths, Islanders Fan and Tasteyville by more than nine lengths, and five others by at least four lengths.

The playing field has been somewhat more level in the one-mile races out of the chute, but tactical speed still has been necessary for success. Only 4 of the first 13 winners scored on the front end. All but two winners, however, were within 2 1/2 lengths of the lead after the opening quarter-mile.

Stars aligned for Altesse in Turnback the Alarm

If you're thinking ahead to HolidayFest and the Discovery, Remsen, and Demoiselle stakes at 1 1/8 miles, I can't offer even a preliminary inkling about what to look for, because Sunday's Grade 3 Turnback the Alarm Handicap will be the first dirt route of the meeting.

The Turnback the Alarm is shaping up to be a real donnybrook through the opening fractions - among Sugar Shake, who won the El Encino and Santa Maria on the lead at Santa Anita earlier this year; Peak Maria's Way, the pace-call leader in 4 of her last 5 starts, including the Delaware Handicap; and Folk, who has been freshened since dueling for the lead in the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Alabama. Of the three other prospective starters, Cindy's Mom and Victory Pool are closers who have been best at up to 1 1/16 miles. So the stars may be in proper alignment for the consistent stalker Altesse to notch her first graded-stakes victory.

Altesse won or placed in her first six starts of the year, including a win in an optional claimer on Aqueduct's main track in April and runner-up finishes to Grade 1 winners Lady Joanne and Pool Land. She will get seven pounds off after beating half the field in the Spinster on Keeneland's quirky Polytrack, and couldn't ask for a better pace set-up.

It's been a mixed bag through an initial sample of turf races at Aqueduct. Four of five winners at one mile were never worse than second at any point, but the exception, Chief Tashmo, rallied from dead last. The lone 1 1/16-mile winner led wire to wire, and both winners at 1 1/8 miles rallied from well off the pace, including Fishy Advice, who made up a dozen lengths to win the Knickerbocker Handicap over a soft course.

It's easy to forecast the pace for Saturday's Long Island Handicap at 1 1/2 miles: Miracle Moment will be undoubtedly be in front, but her best distance is 1 /16 miles, and she is going to be pretty tired when that pesky third turn comes along.

Royal Highness, the winner of the Grade 1 Beverly D., has the doubled-edged advantage of being the class of the field and the most accomplished at the distance by far. Royal Highness finished sixth in the recent Flower Bowl behind Lahudood, but that race was run over a turf course that was as hard as a billiard table, and she was reportedly a little foot-sore afterward. Last week's rain should help her cause.

* Speaking of Lahudood, I bet her in the Beverly D. off an allowance win that was impressive visually and against the clock, and watched her do nothing. Then I did nothing and watched her win the Flower Bowl ($44.40) and Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf ($25.40) without me. This game will make you pull your hair out.

* If it weren't for War Pass, Pyro would have won the Juvenile by a dozen lengths, and we'd all be talking about the next super horse.

* I have been playing this game for 35 years now, including a stint at Turf Paradise, and in races of at least six furlongs I can't recall seeing a faster half-mile than the 43.36 in the Miss Woodford on the BC undercard.

* Proud Spell finished second at 9-1 to an obvious favorite in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Hard Spun ran second at 8-1 by nearly five lengths in the Classic, picking up a cool million bucks. Both are trained by Larry Jones, who can train for me anytime.

* If he's not available, Jimmy Jerkens (a 119 Beyer Speed Figure for Corinthian!) will do just fine.