07/28/2005 11:00PM

Young stakes winners still unproven

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - On opening day, a D. Wayne Lukas-trained filly rallies from off the pace to win the 2-year-old filly stakes in very slow time. On day two, a 2-year-old colt turns in a dazzling performance that stamps him the nation's leading juvenile and a heavy favorite for the Hopeful.

If that summary has a familiar ring, it's because it applies identically to the opening of both the 2004 and 2005 Saratoga meetings.

Last year it was Classic Elegance winning the Schuylerville in 1:12.48 on a muddy but quick track, and Afleet Alex taking the next day's Sanford by 5 1/4 lengths in 1:09.32. This time around it was Folklore hanging on in 1:13.66 in the opening-day Adirondack, with Henny Hughes taking the next day's Saratoga Special in 1:10.38 by 3 3/4 lengths while barely ridden out. Once again, the fillies are a perplexing group and there's a colt worth getting excited about.

First, though, let's understand that these kickoff races were the same and only the names were changed, to protect the graded status of races that the New York Racing Association can't figure out what to do with going forward. Last year the six-furlong stakes on days one and two were called the Schuylerville and Sanford, while this year they were the Adirondack and Saratoga Special. Don't try remembering who won last year's Adirondack and Special, because those races simply were not run. Similarly, there will be no Schuylerville or Sanford this year.

The switcheroo is an ingenious but coy way of keeping all four races graded, because races lose their graded status if they are not run for two straight years. But why is it taking NYRA two or three years to decide whether to keep running both sets of races? There's no reason that a six-week meeting can't accommodate them all, which would return each division to having three stakes during the meeting - the Schuylerville, Adirondack, and Spinaway for fillies, and the Sanford, Special, and Hopeful for colts.

Even though horses routinely used to compete in all three even when they were run within four rather than six weeks, it would be surprising if many did any more. But so what? There are enough impressive maiden winners on the East Coast each year to fill the first two races with different fields, the best of which could then return for the Hopeful and Spinaway. Perhaps Afleet Alex's successes this year will even convince people that a top sprinting 2-year-old can still develop into a classic 3-year-old just like good horses used to do every year.

Will Henny Hughes be the next? The Maktoum family bet a reported $4.3 million that he will by buying the colt for that staggering sum before the Special. While that may be pocket change to the buyers, it still seemed like a lot to pay for a Hennessy colt with only a slow maiden victory and a lopsided Tremont victory against a dreadful field to his credit. Trainer Patrick Biancone, who retained the colt after the sale, does excellent work with 2-year-olds, but recent projects such as Zavata, Whywhywhy, and Sense of Style were win-early juveniles that peaked in September of their 2-year-old years.

The $4.3 million began to look almost reasonable after the Special. Henny Hughes led at every pole but does not run like a Quarter Horse. He broke smoothly to the lead but did not panic when he was surrounded after an opening quarter in 22.67 seconds. He disdainfully shook off the company to spurt clear though a half in 45.93, then sprinted away again to increase his margin from three to seven lengths during a fifth furlong of 11.70 before coasting home while being geared down by Gary Stevens. His final time of 1:10.38 was good for a Beyer Speed Figure of 105; Afleet Alex's Sanford got a 102 last year.

As for Folklore, her 1:13.66 Adirondack isn't quite as slow as it looks, as the opening-day track slowed down drastically after being sealed amid a threat of thunderstorms. One race earlier, Fall Highweight winner Thunder Touch trounced a field of graded-stakes winners in a moderate 1:17.63 for six furlongs. Still, Folklore earned only a 75 Beyer and will have to improve to win the Spinaway against beaten Adirondack favorite Adieu, who had an impossible trip, and fellow Todd Pletcher trainee India, a Hennessy filly who won a maiden race Thursday by 12 lengths in 1:04.66.

If Henny Hughes wins the Hopeful, maybe he's already worth his purchase price as a stallion prospect, but the upside will be decided by how much farther he can go. Hennessy's very best offspring, Johannesburg and Madcap Escapade, both failed beyond 1 1/16 miles, but Silver Tree, Distilled, and Toasted stretched out better. Who knows? Afleet Alex, a son of Northern Afleet and a full brother to the sprinter Unforgettable Max, looked at least as shaky purely on pedigree at this time a year ago. If memory serves, he turned out pretty well.