07/02/2003 11:00PM

'Anticipation' tries to regain glory

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - Trainer Jonathan Sheppard sees no indication With Anticipation has conceded anything to the passage of time.

The 8-year-old turf warrior still trains aggressively, cleans out the feed tub with gusto, and shows the old competitive fire.

Handicappers, looking through a different prism, wonder if With Anticipation has lost a step. They witnessed two less-than-stellar efforts this season and wonder if the calendar - the universal enemy - has taken a toll on With Anticipation, a career winner of more than $2.6 million and five Grade 1 stakes races.

The backdrop of uncertainty makes the Grade 1, $750,000 United Nations Handicap Saturday at Monmouth Park an important statement race for With Anticipation.

He faces six rivals: the duo of Denon (122 pounds) and Requete (115) from trainer Bobby Frankel's barn, The Tin Man (121), Balto Star (117), Kim Loves Bucky (115), and Lunar Sovereign (112).

The U.N., at 1 3/8 miles, has been a pivotal race for With Anticipation (120) the last two years. He finished first both times but earned credit for only one victory.

He was disqualified in 2001 when the Frankel-trained Senure was placed first. With Anticipation enjoyed a trouble-free trip last year, beating Denon by a neck and setting the course record of 2:12 4/5.

The U.N. kicked off a three-race Grade 1 winning streak as With Anticipation went on to capture the Sword Dancer at Saratoga and the Man o' War at Belmont.

With Anticipation can reassert his standing as an elite turf runner with a rebound effort in the U.N.

Sheppard dismisses the last race, the Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap on the Belmont Stakes undercard, which was run on a soggy turf course. Heavy rain softened the course to the point where Sheppard expected the worst.

And he got it. With Anticipation ran last in the field of 10, finishing 22 1/2 lengths behind Denon.

"I was about 90 percent certain that would happen," Sheppard said. "Two jockeys, Pat Day and Gary Stevens, told me it was the deepest course they had ever run on. Stevens, who has ridden in Europe, said it was as deep as any over there."

Sheppard had a sinking feeling as the day progressed. The course, yielding at first, continued to soften as the Manhattan approached.

"We were in a battle, trying to beat the rain," Sheppard said. "I was certain he wouldn't like it."

Sheppard opted to run, even though he held out little hope for a positive outcome.

"The race was part of the program we'd laid out for the summer," Sheppard said. "We'd be playing catch-up all season. We had to at least get a run."

With Anticipation came out of the race in good order.

"He recovered extremely well," Sheppard said. "He used to do things like that back when he was running on dirt. He would be eased and come back in the next race to win a stakes."

With Anticipation might not get firm footing for the U.N. Overnight rain pushed Thursday's turf races onto the main track. The forecast for Saturday calls for scattered thundershowers.

Another factor compromising With Anticipation could be the lack of competitive races this season. Eliminate the Manhattan and the gelding had only one serious run - a fifth-place finish in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Stakes in May.

"It could be that he's still a race away," Sheppard said. "He's not battle-hardened. He's fit, sharp, and sound but he hasn't had a tough battle."

That could change Saturday in the U.N. as the Frankel trainees both appear primed for big efforts.

Denon has emerged as a turf force with three Grade 1 victories over the last two seasons. Stablemate Requete looks like an emerging star. The 4-year-old ran second in Grade 1 stakes races in his last two starts.

The field

United Nations Handicap

Purse: $750,000; 1 3/8 miles (turf); Grade 1

PPHORSEJOCKEYWT.ODDS
1Balto StarJ. Velez11710-1
2The Tin ManM. Smith1215-2
3RequeteE. Prado1157-2
4Lunar SovereignR. Migliore1126-1
5DenonJ. Bailey1228-5
6With AnticipationP. Day1208-1
7Kim Loves BuckyS. Sellers11515-1

* Odds by Steve Grabowski