09/09/2002 12:00AM

Afternoon of determination

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ELMONT, N.Y. - The competitive spirit of the Thoroughbred is a never-ending source of admiration.

It was on display in generous quantity at Belmont Park last weekend as a number of talented horses took part in an outstanding program designed to highlight top candidates for the Breeders' Cup at Arlington Park on Oct. 26.

The highlight of Saturday's racing for many was the moment in midstretch of the $500,000 Man o' War Stakes on the turf course when George Strawbridge's 7-year-old homebred, With Anticipation, issued a challenge to the pace-making Balto Star. Balto Star, a tough competitor in his own right and the winner of almost $1 million, led by more than two lengths at the eighth pole. Having set leisurely fractions early, he had something left and he continued strongly to the wire.

But with desire plainly written across his face, With Anticipation reached out with ground-devouring strides and seemed to will himself and partner Pat Day to the winning post a length before Balto Star.

With Anticipation, by Relaunch out of stakes-winning Fran's Valentine, has been a good horse throughout his extensive career of 42 starts, during which he has earned $2,157,204. But he appeared to reach a special peak with his stretch run in the Man o' War. At an age when few of his generation are still racing, With Anticipation is having his finest hour.

"It was notable because he was able to win without everything going his way," trainer Jonathan Sheppard commented.

"Balto Star, on the other hand, was able to set his own pace and had things very much his way. It seems to take With Anticipation a little longer this year to get the message, but when he does, he won't be denied."

With Anticipation is expected to race again in three weeks, in the $750,000 Turf Classic. Last year, after winning the Man o' War, Sheppard decided to skip the Turf Classic in the interest of having a fresher horse for the Breeders' Cup Turf. That was one of his few disappointing performances, prompting Sheppard to try a new approach this season.

We saw another outstanding display of determination in the $500,000 Woodward Stakes at nine furlongs, won convincingly by the Amerman Stable's Chilean import, Lido Palace. Second in the Suburban and third in the Whitney at Saratoga, the 5-year-old Lido Palace stood a long drive gamely to capture the Woodward by three-quarters of a length from Gander, a winner of almost $1.5 million.

Express Tour, a winner of almost $1.8 million, set a realistic pace, with Gander and Lido Palace in close attendance. Gander went to the front turning for home and threatened to win but Lido Palace outgunned him and prevailed.

"He was a little sharp for the Woodward," trainer Bobby Frankel said, "and was closer to the pace than usual. But he was able to wear them down and win the race for the second consecutive year.

"He probably won it a little easier than it appeared. We plan to run him back in the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup on Sept. 28, and he'll be supplemented to the Breeders Cup Classic at a fee of $800,000."

Imperial Gesture, from the Godolphin Stable of Shiekh Mohammed, also distinguished herself on the weekend card with a clear-cut victory by by 2 1/2 lengths in the $250,000 Gazelle Handicap for 3-year-old fillies. A daughter of Langfuhr purchased for $350,000 at Keeneland, Imperial Gesture made all the pace but was strong enough to turn back a stretch challenge from Take Charge Lady.

Imperial Gesture won the UAE Oaks in Dubai last spring but disappointed in the Kentucky Oaks. She was freshened several months, came back with a strong allowance victory at Saratoga, and improved off that race considerably in the Gazelle. She is expected to participate in the Breeders' Cup, and, judging by her performance last Saturday, is a serious threat.