07/12/2008 1:27AM

Saturday Notions

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Johnhenrythebart_2
CHICAGO -- Curlin's grass debut in the Man o' War may be the single most compelling race on Saturday's busy schedule, but the cards at Arlington and Calder are far more interesting and engaging than Belmont's, which is not only short on quality but peculiarly arranged.

There's a $52k pick-6 carryover I won't be playing at Belmont, where cards seem increasingly to be set up to foil multirace players. The two best and richest races on the card besides the Man o'War are being run as the 3rd and 4th, preceding the pick-six sequence, while the clearly worst race on the card, a sprint for beaten $15k claiming fillies that should have been the first or second half of the early double, has been inexplicably slotted as the 7th. The finale, which ends both the pick-4 and pick-6, is a dismal statebred maiden turf race where the second and third ML choices are first-time starters, exactly the kind of race that should never be run as the last on the card. The placement of the 7th and 10th make the pick-4 and pick-6 unplayable for me, so I'll watch Curlin with keen, but not parimutuel, interest.

At Arlington, where I'll be doing a seminar with Mike Watchmaker and Marcus Hersh starting at 11 a.m., there are three intriguing grass stakes that serve as the local preps for the track's three big Grade 1 races August 9th: The G3 Arlington Handicap is a prep for the Arlington Million; the G3 Modesty for fillies at 9.5f will yield some longshot starters for the Beverly D, and the G2 American Derby for 3-year-olds is the prelude to the Secretariat.

The two favorites in the Arlington Handicap are both former Patrick Biancone trainees -- Cosmonaut, now with Carlos Martin, and Stream Cat, who has been transferred to Rusty Arnold. Cosmonaut, third in last year's BC Mile, will be shooting for his third straight Arlington Handicap victory, and for the third year in a row he looks like the lone speed on paper and a serious threat to wire the field. Stream Cat hasn't been out since Oct. 27, and 10 furlongs for a new trainer off a nine-month layoff isn't my idea of value at 5-2. Instead, I'll use Cosmonaut and Corrupt, an improving 4-year-old with all sorts of trips and excuses in his last three starts.

The Modesty is the best betting race of the three, with a field of 11 in which at least six have a real shot of victory. Ciao at 10-1 ML is appealing in her third off a layoff if she can get back to the form that got her within half a length of Bit of Whimsy in last fall's G2 Mrs. Revere, and Lemon Chiffon at 6-1 may have the most upside in the group, making just her fifth start and her first outside California. Ballymore Lady must be used at 5-1 off a sharp second to Dreaming of Anna last time out in the G3 Mint Julep.

The American Derby has more of a Million Day flavor than the other two in that it features two appealing European imports: Great War Eagle (Storm Cat-Cash Run), second in a pair of Irish G3's this spring, and 10-1 Blue Exit, in from France. They'll have to run down Tizdejavu, who got loose winning the G3 American Turf and G2 Jefferson Cup in his last two and looks likely to get loose again here.

Calder's Summit of Speed card includes four straight graded stakes at six furlongs worth a combined $1.3 million: the Azalea and Carry Back for 3-year-olds, then the Princess Rooney and Smile for older sprinters. Out-of-towners appear to have the edge in all four races.

The Azalea looks like a showdown between fillies based in San Francisco and Vancouver: Indyanne, a winner of her three career starts in Northern California by a combined 23 lengths, and Dancing Allstar, the pride of Hastings Park, who is 8-for-10 overall and 7-for-7 on real dirt.

The Carry Back has a solid favorite in Lantana Mob, winner of the G3 Hirsch Jacobs on the Preakness undercard, though he hasn't raced since then and has moved from Steve Asmussen's barn to Michael Trombetta's. But it's a weird race. There's not a single true frontrunner in the field, which may compromise the favorite's chances. Also, you have to figure out what to do with Golden Spikes and Gentleman James, who earned stratospheric 104 Beyers finishing a head apart and 10 lengths clear of the rest of the field in the local prep for this, the June 14 Unbridled. Those performances were 17-to-19 point career tops in sprints for both colts.

The G1 Princess Rooney features a rematch between the 1-2 finishers in the May 25 G2 Vagrancy, Looky Yonder and Dream Rush, both unraced since then. Dream Rush had a four-length lead after 5 1/2 furlongs that day but stopped late as Looky Yonder came from the clouds to run her down. That big move has made Looky Yonder the favorite, but I lean toward Dream Rush, who cuts back half a furlong and should improve in her second start of the year. Mistical Plan deserves a long look at 10-1 cutting back from 8.5f to 6f; the last time she did that, she won the Sunshine Million Oaks. Miraculous Miss, beaten just half a length at 43-1 in the BC F&M Sprint last year, should be up for a piece in her second start of the year.

The Smile looks made to order for the country's top-ranked sprinter, Benny the Bull, who is listed at 7-5 but could be odds-on. He beat 3-1 ML second-choice Man of Danger by only a neck in the G2 True North on Belmont Day, but was hampered by a slow pace and an almost-too-late ride. The Smile has plenty of speed to keep Man of Danger busy early and I'm looking for another closer, the vastly improved Rockerfeller (ML 6-1), rather than Man of Danger, to complete the exacta.

If you forced me to bet on the Man o' War, I'd probably try to beat Curlin with Grand Couturier rather than the better-known (and perhaps past-their-prime) Better Talk Now and Red Rocks. Grand Couturier got seriously good last summer, beating English Channel on the square at Saratoga and then running a fine third to Doctor Dino and Sunriver in a slow-paced Man o' War. If you forgive his BC Turf over a soft course he didn't handle, and his comeback at Belmont last month where he tried to rally from dead last into a 22.93 final quarter, he has possibilities at a price.

As I'm wrapping this up at 1:30 a.m. Central time, thunderstorms are pelting Chicago, so be sure to check course conditions and late scratches. And as long as we're talking Arlington, I never get tired of watching this one: