07/26/2001 12:00AM

Zito knows Whitney's no walkover

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - After his smashing victories in the Widener, Brooklyn, and Suburban Handicaps, each race a little better than the one before, there is wide agreement that Albert the Great is one of the best American horses in training.

He comes up to Saturday's $750,000 Whitney in excellent form, but trainer Nick Zito, ever the realist, sees the nine-furlong Whitney as among the most challenging assignments he has ever had.

"There are several horses in the Whitney, other than Albert, who have had some form in the past," Zito pointed out. "Unshaded is one of these. He won the Travers here last summer, beating Albert the Great, but we are asked to give him nine pounds in the Whitney.

"Then there is Lido Palace. He was a classic winner in his native Chile and he was second to Albert in the Suburban. We're giving him nine pounds, too.

"And then there is Elite Mercedes, who was on the Triple Crown trail last year before being sidelined by injury. He recently returned to action with an impressive score at Churchill Downs. Albert the Great will be conceding 12 pounds.

"The Whitney is almost always competitive, but Saturday's race looks particularly close."

Having expressed his concern about weight concessions, however, Zito noted that good horses have a way of rising to the occasion.

"When challenged, they meet the challenges, " he said. "That is how they have come to be recognized as good horses.

"Albert has never been better, as indicated in the Suburban. If he has a good trip, they should know he's around."

Something special

For his first weekend card of the Saratoga meeting, racing secretary Mike Lakow has put together a feast of racing, virtually every event with a special appeal or interest. The $250,000 Test Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, for example, pits the Prioress winner, Xtra Heat, against the Acorn winner Forest Secrets, a confrontation of unusual luster.

But then good racing is what Saratoga is all about, and has been since the inaugural meeting in l864. Wednesday's opening was exceptional in that respect and enhanced the stature of a 2-year-old filly of consequence in the Schuylerville winner, Touch Love. She is now 3 for 3 and the apple of trainer Anthony Dutrow's eye.

Reserved off a lively pace by Jorge Chavez, Touch Love moved on the turn, was in front at the furlong pole, and drew away to score by almost five lengths as if pounds the best. A bay daughter of Not For Love, she came out of the mid-Atlantic yearling sales for $17,000 and is owned by the Skeedattle Stable of Robert White and Louis Rehak. The two men are business partners in a Maryland firm that manufactures overhead doors.

"She is a hard-trying filly with a lot of heart," Dutrow said. "She had to over come the number 1 post position, but she seems to do whatever it takes to win. She may make her next start in the Spinaway Stakes on Aug. 31."

A pair of interesting 2-year-old races were other highlights on the opening card. Mayakovsky, named for the noted poet of the Russian revolution, broke the 54-year-old track record by running 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:03.32. Mayakovsky, owned by Michael Tabor, is by the Hollywood Futurity winner Matty G. He is trained by Patrick Biancone, whose last starter at Saratoga was Le Voyageur in 1989.

The other notable 2-year-old runner was Truman's Raider, who won decisively under Jerry Bailey. Truman's Raider, by Capote, is trained by D. Wayne Lukas, who may run him in the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth Park, a race Lukas has won eight times.