07/02/2013 2:06PM

Belmont: Hot pace in Poker may set up Data Link

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Belmont Park dodged raindrops all last week, and Mother Nature’s continued cooperation would be appreciated through a Fourth of July card that includes three turf stakes and the first scheduled 2-year-old grass race of the season.

Heading the holiday lineup is the Grade 3, $150,000 Poker Stakes, a one-mile race on the Widener course that attracted seven turf-meant older males, headed by four-time graded stakes winner Data Link.

The stretch-running Data Link won the Grade 1 Maker’s 46 Mile last year, and he was a clear second in that race to reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan in his last start.

“He ran fine,” said trainer Shug McGaughey. “He laid in behind [Wise Dan]. He settled in good and made a good run at him. He just couldn’t get by. He was second best.

The pace should be favorable for Data Link, as a potential early battle looms between Big Screen and King Kreesa, both exiting first-place finishes with triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures.

Big Screen made all the running in last month’s off-the-turf Jaipur Stakes and prevailed by a head over Souper Speedy, but was disqualified for herding out his stablemate.

“I was actually rooting for a dead heat,” said trainer Tom Albertrani. “I had one happy owner for a couple of minutes, and then vice versa.”

King Kreesa has won or placed in five of six starts over the local turf courses, including a close second in the Grade 1 Jamaica at 23-1 last fall and a front-running score over New York-breds in the Kingston last time out, beating, among others, Lubash, who was fresh off a win in the Fort Marcy.

“That was a tough field,” noted Jeremiah Englehart, who has developed King Kreesa from a $25,000 maiden into a multiple stakes winner. “Those horses are going to be knocking heads all year.”

Lubash has won three stakes for Christophe Clement, capped by a sizzling Fort Marcy in stakes-record time.

“Very honest, always tries,” said Clement.

Howe Great a wide fourth in the Dixie last out, makes his first start for trainer Rick Mettee, who won the 1996 Poker with Smooth Runner.

Shkspeare Shaliyah and Upgrade are also entered for turf.

◗ The Eventail and the Fairy Garden, a pair of $100,000, 1 1/1/6-mile overnight stakes respectively scheduled for the Widener and inner turf, lured graded stakes winners.

Discreet Marq, who wired the Grade 2 Sands Point in her first start for Clement, opposes eight rival 3-year-old New York-bred fillies in the Eventail.

“It was a bit ambitious, but she was the only speed of the race, and [owner-breeder Patricia Generazio] was really happy to take the shot,” said Clement of the decision to run Discreet Marq in the Sands Point off a four-month layoff. “It worked out.”

Unbelievable Dream, who trailed throughout the Sands Point, looks to rebound for Barclay Tagg. She had won three of four prior starts including the Grade 3 Appalachian.

Clement sends out the uncoupled duo of Future Generation and Team in the Fairy Garden, which drew eight turf-meant older fillies and mares.

The key question is how to evaluate Samitar, who most recently stumbled at the start of the Gallorette Handicap as the favorite, and finished a non-threatening fourth behind stablemate Pianist.

“We had two horses in the race and the plan was for Mike [Smith on Pianist] to go to the lead,” said Brown. “[Pianist] looked great, although it looked like Samitar wasn’t holding the track on the backside.”

Other contenders include Peace Preserver and Baffle Me, who each won turf stakes at Belmont’s 2012 fall meet.