04/09/2003 11:00PM

Answer these questions and you'll likely cash


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Questions abound heading into a big Saturday of racing at Aqueduct, where a three-stakes card is headlined by the Wood Memorial (4:15 p.m. Eastern). The Wood kicks off the Big 3 Pick 3, which also includes the Blue Grass (5:15 p.m.) and the Arkansas Derby (5:45 p.m.).

At the end of the day, see how many answers you had right from the following questions:

Will the Big A surface be wet? Probably, but a more precise question is how wet? Will the track have dried out enough to be harrowed, as was the case for Fusaichi Pegasus's wet-fast Wood in 2000? Or will it be more like the sealed sea of slop Captain Bodgit sloshed through three years earlier?

Sea of slop is 3-5. "The Winter That Wouldn't Leave" dumped several inches of snow at Aqueduct Monday, and that was followed by an all-day drizzle Wednesday that kept the surface no better than muddy through press time Thursday.

Friday's forecast was basically, "Man the lifeboats," with over an inch of rain expected and gradual clearing into Saturday - gradual being the key word.

What's the right strategy in the Bay Shore? If you like someone in the Bay Shore consider the simple approach of trying to improve win odds by linking to the obvious favorites in the Wood and Carter - Empire Maker and Congaree - in the pick three.

But if you're spreading in this competitive stakes and singling Empire Maker and Congaree, expect a low payoff because that's what most small-scale tickets will be doing.

Shippers from Hollywood Park (Special Rate), Santa Anita (During), and Gulfstream Park (Halo Homewrecker) figure to get the most support.

During is likely to be favored on the strength of paired triple-digit Beyers and a 420 Tomlinson rating for wet tracks.

Halo Homewrecker received the comment "drew clear, handily" for his recent entry-level allowance win, but race-watchers may recall Jerry Bailey resorted to the whip to motivate him approaching the quarter pole.

The best of the locals appears to be Don Six, who is 2 for 2 and one of just three horses in the field with a recent race over the track. He earned above-par pace and final-time figures winning the first division of a split entry-level allowance race March 23, setting fractions of 22.29 seconds, 44.79, and 1:09.07, and completing seven furlongs in 1:21.66. By way of comparison, Stanislavsky, who is also in the Bay Shore, ran in the second division an hour later when the splits under identical conditions were 22.26, 45.45, and 1:10.54. His final time was 1:23.81.

Is Empire Maker well meant in the Wood? Everyone's Derby favorite will obviously be something short of 100 percent, because this is a bridge from the Florida Derby to the Kentucky Derby in much the same way it was for Monarchos two years ago.

To recall, after lighting it up in the Florida Derby with an electric move on the far turn, a lightly trained Monarchos finished a flat second in the Wood. But let's keep in mind that the horse who beat him that day was Congaree, a horse who at the time had only maiden and allowance wins to his credit, and was therefore in desperate need of graded stakes earnings to get into the Derby field. Empire Maker doesn't appear to be facing any Congarees in the Wood.

"I don't think he ran nearly as fast as he can in the Florida Derby," said trainer Bobby Frankel, speaking of Empire Maker's breakthrough performance with blinkers added. "He ran a good number, not a great number, and I don't think that put him over the top. I'm expecting him to take a little step back but I think he'll probably run about the same race he did in Florida."

Empire Maker ran well in the Florida Derby, but the race looked better than it was because he ran by a spent pacesetter and there was no one else with the ability to reach contention. Empire Maker overtook a slower-than-par pace and finished up right at par (107-110) on my set of Quirin-style figures, gaining one length into a pedestrian last three-eighths of a mile completed in 38.32 seconds while neglecting to change leads.

For Empire Maker, it was a definite step forward from his previous form, but it was not the explosive effort he has widely been given credit for.

Who is the speed in the Carter? Considering its Grade 1 status and $350,000 purse, it's hard to believe the total lack of early speed in the five-horse Carter Handicap.

No one really wants the lead. Congaree was right off a fast pace when last seen here winning the Cigar Mile last fall, but he was coming off two races at the same distance and he is now coming off the nine-furlong San Antonio and the 10-furlong Big Cap, which surely has dulled his early speed in terms of sprinting.

Last year's Carter winner, Affirmed Success, has been three lengths from the lead at the pace call of his last two races, and is at his best as a stalker.

Aldebaran is a deep-closing sprinter-miler type who has been next to last early in his last two wins dating back over a year.

Peeping Tom is never close early, either, and the badly overmatched New York-bred Papua went 4 for 4 on the inner track this winter by rallying late in slow-paced sprints.

Best guess: Bob Baffert recently attempted to put some sprint speed back into Congaree by working him five furlongs in 57.60 seconds. He's drawn in post 2, inside Affirmed Success, and may wind up the early leader by default.