03/06/2003 1:00AM

'Belle' best value in either Oaks


NEW YORK - There could have been a really great race for 3-year-old fillies on Saturday involving almost every important member of this division this side of Storm Flag Flying. Instead, we've got two strong, but painfully abbreviated fields in the $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks and the $350,000 Fair Grounds Oaks.

Way to schedule, people.

The $200,000 Richter Scale Breeders' Cup is one of three sprint stakes for older males on Saturday. But in this case, the race at Gulfstream is not competing for the same horses with the $100,000 Phoenix Gold Cup at Turf Paradise, or with the $50,000 Bill Thomas Memorial at Sunland Park in New Mexico.

Also on Saturday is the $200,000 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields, a prep for the Kentucky Derby that will also whet the appetite for Sunday's $750,000 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds. This edition of the Louisiana Derby is eagerly anticipated because it boasts a matchup between Kafwain and Badge of Silver, the early favorites for the Kentucky Derby.

Fair Grounds Oaks

Unlike the Santa Anita Oaks, where if Composure doesn't win at a short price, Elloluv will at a short price, a case can be made against the first two favorites in the Fair Grounds Oaks. Lady Tak, who is unbeaten and pretty much untested after four starts, may be narrowly favored over Atlantic Ocean, who will take a lot of money because she has won three straight stakes and is trained by Bob Baffert. But, Lady Tak is taking a significant step up in both class and distance, and is doing so without a substantial edge in Beyer Figures. As for Atlantic Ocean, she has undoubtedly improved, but even after 10 starts, she has yet to really run fast.

I like Belle of Perintown. She was impressive winning the Silverbulletday Stakes at the distance over the track last time out, earning a 97 Beyer despite being well in hand through the stretch run. Belle of Perintown won't be anywhere near 10-1 again, but she still figures to be a better price than Lady Tak and Atlantic Ocean. Belle of Perintown also seems to put victories together, as she demonstrated winning the Pocahontas last fall right after her maiden score.

Richter Scale Breeders' Cup

Smooth Jazz is my play here. He has been a good horse waiting to happen for quite some time, and I think his time may be now.

Smooth Jazz is coming into this race fresh. His last two performances off layoffs resulted in romping victories, one by 7 1/4 lengths and the other by six, and both of those wins were good enough for the two best Beyer Figures of his racing career. Even the effort that earned Smooth Jazz his third highest Beyer, a close third at Saratoga behind the sometimes-freakish Voodoo and Aldebaran, runaway winner of last Sunday's Grade 1 San Carlos, looks good against this group.

However, Burning Roma must be included in exotic wagers. Third in this race last year, and winner of the Meadowlands Cup over subsequent Breeders' Cup Classic winner Volponi, Burning Roma's trouble in a race like this used to be his lack of sprint speed. But, he has been more involved early in his recent races, and going turf to dirt here, he should be in reasonable striking distance down the backstretch.

Phoenix Gold Cup

Giovannetti is the probable favorite, and the horse to beat. But, if you respect him, then you can also give a look to Smile N Wildcat, my top selection.

Smile N Wildcat was strongly favored over Giovannetti when he lost a narrow decision to him early this year. Smile N Wildcat dueled inside that day, a spot I don't want for my horse unless there is a rail bias, and he had been away nearly two months, or two weeks longer than Giovannetti had between starts. That's noteworthy, because it may have made for the half-length difference between them, and such a demanding effort off a layoff may have caused Smile N Wildcat to come up empty last time out.

I expect a rebound from Smile N Wildcat on Saturday, much like the rebound he engineered winning his third career start after turning in a subpar effort in the second start of his career.