05/26/2004 11:00PM

Belmont heats up over the holiday weekend


ELMONT, N.Y. - A smorgasbord of top-class racing awaits handicappers at Belmont Park during the next short stretch, beginning with an interesting trio of graded stakes over the Memorial Day holiday.

Saturday's Sheepshead Bay looks like a wildly competitive grass marathon, and a cursory glance of the field suggests the photo-finish operator should get the camera ready.

Meridiana and Alternate were noses apart in last month's Bewitch, earning Beyer Speed Figures of 97. Moscow Burning just won a California-bred turf stakes with a lifetime-top Beyer Figure of 95. Primetimevalentine ran 97 Beyers back to back on this circuit last year, and is third back from a layoff after an improved effort here 18 days ago. Spice Island, a two-time stakes winner in 2003 with Beyers of 99 and 97, also makes her third start of the year.

Based on final-time figures, not much separates the logical contenders. But it is the strongest finishers who usually win turf stakes, and Spice Island really shines in that department when some of her past races are put under the microscope.

Spice Island won three in a row last year, including Keeneland's Dowager Stakes at nearly 12-1 and Aqueduct's Long Island Handicap at 7-1. The tip-off to those fat mutuels came in a third-level allowance going 1 1/8 miles at Belmont a race earlier, when Spice Island was in traffic through midstretch and accelerated sharply when clear, running her last three-eighths in roughly 35.40 seconds despite the rush-hour snarl. In the 1 1/2-mile Dowager, she ran her last quarter in 23 seconds. In the Long Island, also at 12 furlongs, she required 23 and some change for the last quarter, but that was on yielding turf.

Spice Island is fresh off another 1 1/8-mile foundation race where she again ran her last three-eighths in 35 and change, and did it against males in a tough classified allowance won by Senor Swinger, a stakes-winning earner of over $420,000 on the grass.

Spice Island may be a decent price because she has lost to Alternate and Merdiana, each of whom comes off a trouble line in the Bewitch that may be overblown. Alternate "lacked room" leaving the far turn but had a clear shot once set down for the drive and fell a nose short of Meridiana, who "lacked room" at the quarter pole but enjoyed a rail-hugging trip around all three turns.

The field for Sunday's Jaipur Handicap remained sketchy at press time, but turf sprints are something of a novelty in New York and eagerly anticipated by many players. There's no track profile to go by, because this will be the first seven-furlong grass race of the meet. The Widener Course mile races, which begin with a dogleg into the backstretch, are the closest thing, and a check of the 16 such races here from opening day through Wednesday, May 26, reveals that early pace-pressing types have fared very well. At the pace call, which at this distance takes place at the quarter pole, five of 16 winners already had the lead, 10 of 16 were running first, second, or third, and 11 of 16 were within two lengths of the lead.

Of course, Monday's Met Mile is the focal point of the weekend, and you know it's a tough race when Eclipse winners Azeri and Funny Cide shake out no better than third and fourth choice in the prospective field.

Azeri could become the richest money-winning mare of all time by running first or second, but she is really being thrown into the fire and will be hard-pressed to break the record, because the Met comes right on the heels of her first sub-100 Beyer since her career debut back in November 2001. Considering that she freaked with a career-top figure in the Apple Blossom in her first time out in over six months, and was then under severe pressure through the length of the stretch in the Humana Distaff and couldn't beat Mayo on the Side, it's hard to see her bouncing back in this much tougher spot.

Funny Cide has lost four Grade 1 races since last year's Preakness by an aggregate 37 lengths, which makes it abundantly clear that he is no longer a Grade 1-caliber horse. He was fortunate last out to catch a speed-favoring track in the Excelsior, which enabled him to stave off a late run from Evening Attire.

As discussed last week, horses on or within two lengths of the pace-call lead have dominated Belmont's mile races this spring. The current profile is a big knock on several likely starters, including Eye of the Tiger, who was 11 lengths from the lead at some point in one-turn races in his last two starts, and the one-two finishers from the recent slow-paced Westchester Handicap, Gygistar, and Saarland.

The Met comes down to Pico Central setting the pace and Strong Hope stalking and trying to catch him. Pico Central kept Strong Hope at bay in the Carter Handicap, but there are three possible reasons why the outcome could be reversed in the Met:

* Inside speed was golden in one-turn races at Aqueduct on April 10, and Strong Hope was chasing three wide while Pico Central was on the fence.

* Strong Hope had been off since the Travers and had just one six-furlong prep for the Carter, and cruised uncontested through a moderate pace at Gulfstream. The Carter was the final screw-tightener for this main objective.

* Strong Hope has the home-court advantage, with a 3-for-3 record at Belmont and recent workouts over the track. Pico Central will be making his second transcontinental trip of the spring.