04/09/2003 11:00PM

Badge of Silver is strong play

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New York - In addition to the three major final preps for the Kentucky Derby - the $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, the $750,000 Blue Grass at Keeneland, and the $500,000 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park - there are a lot of other noteworthy stakes on Saturday.

There is the $350,000 Carter Handicap, which features an intriguing battle between Congaree and Aldebaran. There is the $150,000 Bay Shore for 3-year-olds who prefer sprint distances and which, like the Carter, will also be run at Aqueduct. And, there is the Illinois Champions Day program at Hawthorne consisting of six stakes for Illinois-breds, each worth $100,000.

But make no mistake, everything on Saturday revolves around the Wood, Blue Grass, and Arkansas Derby, which are linked together in a national bet called the Big 3 Pick 3. Here's how I see these races:

Blue Grass

Badge of Silver is a strong play. When he lost for the first time most recently as the favorite in the Louisiana Derby, he cruised past Peace Rules into the stretch as though he was going to win by many lengths, only to suddenly stop in the manner of a horse who either bled, or lost his air. Sure enough, after the Louisiana Derby, Badge of Silver underwent surgery to correct a breathing problem.

On Saturday, Badge of Silver returns to the track on which he won first time out, and he figures to sit a beautiful trip, prompting a pace set by the overmatched and distance-challenged Great Notion. All of this should enable Badge of Silver to turn the tables on Peace Rules.

For purposes of the Big 3 Pick 3, I would throw Offlee Wild in on a backup ticket. Offlee Wild has been away due to illness, but he won the Holy Bull in January off a layoff. And Offlee Wild had no chance last time out in the Fountain of Youth when Trust N Luck got loose on the lead - although to his credit, he did make a wide middle move.

Arkansas Derby

In a tough call, I'll take Man Among Men over Aristocat, although both will be on my main Big 3 Pick 3 ticket. Man Among Men beat everyone's favorite for the Kentucky Derby, Empire Maker, when he won the Sham in his first start of the year, and he had an excuse most recently when seventh in the San Felipe, in which he bled.

As for Aristocat, in both of his defeats, he lost to Region of Merit, and he meets Region of Merit again here. But Aristocat finished much stronger than Region of Merit did in winning the shorter Tampa Bay Derby last month. He has worked sharply twice since, and is a candidate to improve with blinkers on.

Defrere's Vixen, who was a respectable fifth in the much tougher Louisiana Derby, and Cat Genius, who may get brave on a clear early lead, should be used on backup pick three tickets.

Wood Memorial

I would love to pick and bet against Empire Maker, the universe's pick for the Kentucky Derby. It was only one race ago, before his Florida Derby romp, that he was a profound underachiever and an automatic bet-against. Moreover, he is likely to catch a wet track for the first time. But I can't. Empire Maker will probably win at an unappealingly short price.

However, I don't trust him enough to stand completely alone with him in the Big 3 Pick 3. On backup tickets, I'll include Funny Cide and Senor Swinger. Funny Cide was game finishing third in the Louisiana Derby and should be the main speed, while Senor Swinger, beaten more than 20 lengths by Empire Maker in the Florida Derby, will likely show dramatic improvement in his first start for trainer Bob Baffert.

My Big 3 Pick 3 play is: Main ticket - Empire Maker (No. 8), with Badge of Silver (4), with Aristocat (9) and Man Among Men (10).

Backup ticket A - Funny Cide (4) and Senor Swinger (5), with Badge of Silver (4), with Aristocat (9) and Man Among Men (10).

Backup ticket B - Empire Maker (8), with Offlee Wild (3), with Aristocat (9) and Man Among Men (10).

Backup ticket C - Empire Maker (8), with Badge of Silver (4), with Defrere's Vixen (3) and Cat Genius (6). The total cost for a $1 play is $10. To use every horse mentioned in each race on one ticket would cost $24 for a $1 play.