08/27/2003 11:00PM

An all-Pletcher exacta in Hopeful

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NEW YORK - Summer weekends may be nearing an end, but the undeniable theme of stakes racing on Saturday is the future. There are 15 stakes scheduled Saturday for 2-year-olds at racetracks across North America.

The two biggest 2-year-old races Saturday are the $200,000 Hopeful at Saratoga, and the $250,000 Del Mar Debutante for fillies. Delaware Park hosts two $200,000 stakes for 2-year-olds, the NATC Futurity and the NATC Sorority. There are also 2-year-old stakes doubleheaders at Retama Park and Prairie Meadows, and Calder is running six stakes for 2-year-olds. Calder has the Affirmed division and Susan's Girl division of the Florida Stallion Stakes, each worth $125,000; Retama hosts the El Joven and La Senorita, each worth $100,000 and both scheduled for turf; and Prairie Meadows has the Iowa Cradle and Iowa Sorority for Iowa-breds, each worth $65,000.

Oh yes, Monmouth Park also has its version of the Sorority, with a $100,000 purse. By my count, that makes for three different Sorority Stakes to be run on Saturday.

Here are my three spotlight stakes:

Hopeful

In what looks like a two-horse race on paper between Chapel Royal and Birdstone, I am firmly in Chapel Royal's corner, for this race, at least. I hate to knock a colt like Birdstone, who is beautifully bred, well trained, and who won his only race by a double-digit margin in fast time. But, Birdstone did get a perfect trip that day, the horses he humbled haven't come back to run particularly well, and he concedes a lot Saturday in terms of experience.

Chapel Royal, on the other hand, is 3 for 3, and was really good winning the Sanford the second day of the Saratoga meet. Flushing Meadows, who was beaten more than nine lengths finishing third in the Sanford, came back to win impressively last week. Moreover, Chapel Royal showed the ability to rate effectively in the Sanford, making him doubly dangerous.

In an effort to break up the chalk Chapel Royal-Birdstone exacta, I will try and make it an all Todd Pletcher-trained exacta and get Limehouse up for second. Limehouse is much better than his third in the Saratoga Special over a strange, sloppy track suggests, as evidenced by two prior stakes wins at Churchill Downs.

Affirmed

Sir Oscar is a vulnerable favorite here. He had to steady early when he won the Dr. Fager division of this series last time out, but that actually helped him. It put him in back of a fast early pace, and when the race fell apart, he had the reserves to capitalize. But Sir Oscar came home very slowly, with a final quarter mile in nearly 27 seconds.

I'm going with Perpetual Peace, who was as game as can be winning his only start, which came at Ellis Park. Perpetual Peace rushed to the lead after steadying at the start, and then turned back three separate challenges from both the outside and inside to prevail. He ships for a high percentage barn, and while the 75 Beyer Speed Figure he earned in his debut is certainly competitive against this field, he has every right to improve on it second time out.

Kipper's Night, a fast-closing second to Sir Oscar after traffic trouble in the stretch, can be included in exotics, as he benefits from a rare jockey change that is truly meaningful, switching to Jorge Chavez.

NATC Futurity

Tabacchi ran well winning his recent, strongly bet debut at Monmouth, earning a 76 Beyer that is already better than what most of the rest of this field has earned. It is just 2 points shy of what the probable favorite, Next Bandit, earned winning a stakes last time out at Arlington Park.

But, horses almost always improve on their first start Beyers second time out, especially 2-year-olds. For an example, look at how Next Bandit improved on a 74 in his first start to an 86 winning a stakes at Lone Star in his second race. As is the case with Perpetual Peace at Ellis, Tabacchi should Beyer higher Saturday than he did in his racing debut.