10/13/2007 3:06AM

Mile-High Handicapping


CHICAGO -- The flight from LaGuardia to O'Hare was delayed and then late, but at least that gave me airport and plane time to get through the Belmont, Keeneland and Hawthorne cards for Saturday. Those three tracks host four of Saturday's seven graded stakes around the country -- the G1 QE II and G3 Perryville at Keeneland, the G3 Hawthorne Derby and the G3 Athenia -- and I'll discuss that quartet below. You're on your own in the other three -- the G3 Calder Derby and Spend A Buck H. at Calder, and the G2 Oak Tree Derby at Santa Anita.

For the first time in ages, we can't call any of the nation's Saturday stakes "Breeders' Cup preps" -- perish the thought a horse would run in the Breeders' Cup these days off anything as barbaric as a mere 14-day layoff. Saturday's graded stakes are mostly in divisions without a BC race, including the three Derbies (Calder, Hawthorne and Oak Tree) for 3-year-old grass horses.

Let's see if my mile-high handicapping was any good. At least I did it in comfort. I made out a $120 late pick-four play at Belmont today, if only to celebrate the first rained-off turf sprints of the meeting, then got distracted and forgot to put it in. It would have been a loser, as it did not include Morning Gallop ($68.50) in the second leg. So I was feeling like a $120 winner for the day when I got to the airport and the self-service check-in kiosk offered me an upgrade to first class for $90. Easy decision, and still "up" $30 for the day.

4:15 p.m. EST, Kee race 7: G3 $200k Perryville S. 7f-Poly (3-year-olds)
All eight of these sprinting 3-year-olds are looking for their first stakes victory, and the race appears to set up well for Frankel trainee Les Grands Trois to be the one. The Officer colt is a bad-trip third in the Bay Shore away from being 4-for-4, comes off a top-fig 101 Beyer winning a Belmont N2x off a 5 1/2-month layoff, and should close into a hot pace between his principal rivals: Shrewd Operator, winner of his Arlington starts by a combined 13 1/2 lengths, and the improving Chihulykee.

5:12 p.m. EST, Bel race 9: G3 $100k Athenia H., 1 1/16m-T (Older fillies)
This somewhat orphanned stakes drew a field of just six, led by Noble Damsel 1-2 finishers Dance Away Capote and Fantastic Shirl. If Dance Away Capote duplicates her last race, where she ran as if shot out of a cannon, she'll romp again but circumstances may be different: She and Fantastic Shirt closed into hot fractions on a rock-hard course last time, whereas today the turf will be softer and the pace virtually non-existent. Criminologist has the tactical speed to stay closer than the Noble Damsel duo, and improved sharply last time out as if now ready to beat this caliber.

5:15 p.m. EST, Kee race 9: G1 $500k Queen Elizabeth II 1 1/8m-T (3yo fillies)
I'm looking to play against Dreaming of Anna as the 3-1 ML favorite in this spot because her three straight grass-stakes victories have earned weak figures and came against softer fields than this one. I'm also not crazy about the four coming out of the weirdly-run Garden City, with the possible exception of eligible-to-improve Euro import Costume. I'll look to Europe for the winner in Coquerelle, who gets Lasix after bleeding in the French Oaks June 10, her first defeat in five starts including a G1 win in the Prix Saint-Alary.

5:54 p.m. EST, Haw race 9: G3 $250k Hawthorne Derby 1 1/8m-T (3yo males)
Several midwestern dirt stakes-winners try turf for the first time in this spot, but unless one of them's a monster, the race boils down to New York-based Twilight Meteor and Summer Doldrums, Both have run well against Nobiz Like Shobiz in recent starts and have better figures and company lines than the locals. Bold Hawk is worth a look at 10-1. With just four starts, including two victories at 10 furlongs, he may have the most upside of anyone in the field and is dangerous cutting back a furlong while still clearly improving from start to start.

I'll be watching the various festivities from Hawthorne. Maybe if I forget to put in some more losers, I'll upgrade to first for the Saturday night flight home.