02/20/2003 1:00AM

Best of the Rest takes pass on Donn


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - A field of 11 is set for Saturday's $500,000 Donn Handicap, although two prospective entrants were conspicuous by their absence when the race was drawn earlier this week.

The connections of Best of the Rest, winner of the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic, and his Calder-based rival The Judge Sez Who both passed on this Grade 1 opportunity. One wasn't entered by design, the other out of necessity.

Trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. did not even nominate Best of the Rest to the Donn, instead pointing him for the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap at the Fair Grounds on March 2.

"I didn't nominate because I didn't even want to be tempted to run him in the Donn in case something happened, like the situation with Lido Palace not coming," Plesa said. "For my horse it's strictly a matter of timing, and the New Orleans Handicap gives us another eight days between races. And this is the kind of horse to get the most out of him you've got to space his races, especially when competing on a national scale."

Best of the Rest ran perhaps the best race of his career when he outgamed Booklet to win the Sunshine Classic.

"He came out of the race in excellent shape, and he's been very aggressive lately in his works," Plesa said. "Obviously we'd like to win a Grade 1 race with him, and with Lido Palace out the Donn, [the race] became an easier spot. If the circumstances had been different, I might have had some regrets about not being in there. But we're not running him for the right reason. If he's good enough there will be more Grade 1 opportunities down the road."

Trainer Milt Wolfson had his sights set on the Donn with The Judge Sez Who, but those plans changed after the 4-year-old got sick earlier this month.

"He ran a temperature, and we missed about 10 days of training and a work," Wolfson said. "At that point I just decided the right thing to do was give him a little break, freshen him up, and point him for something later in the meet."

The Judge Sez Who, a Grade 3 winner at 3, upset Best of the Rest in Calder's Fred W. Hooper Handicap to close out his 3-year-old campaign, but lost the rematch when fourth in the Sunshine Classic.

"He had a hard campaign last year," Wolfson said. "It's killing me to have to pass the Donn, especially after seeing the race didn't come up that bad. But I have to look out for my horse. There really isn't anything for him until the Skip Away Handicap at the end of the meet, unless we want to try to stretch him out to a mile and one-quarter for the Gulfstream Park Handicap."

O'Callaghan hedges on Keats

Though Keats is 3 for 4 at Gulfstream, in light with 111 pounds, and appears to be the main speed of the race, his trainer, Niall O'Callaghan, gives this assessment of his chances to win Saturday's Grade 1 Donn Handicap: "If anybody goes with him I don't know if he'll win. But if nobody goes with him

. . . I don't know if he'll win either."

Keats has won one race at Gulfstream each of the last three meets, including an optional claimer on Jan. 10 of this year. His lone loss here came in last year's Donn when he dueled through rapid fractions with Ubiquity and Duckhorn and tired to finish last. This year, only Mr. John appears to have the speed to press Keats early in the Donn.

"I wouldn't run in it this year if there were three or four speeds," O'Callaghan said. "For right now, my choices are limited, it's either this or an allowance race. If he runs second in this race it's like winning three allowances. I'm rolling the dice, taking a shot at it. Is he a horse that could win a Donn? I don't know."

As a 3-year-old, Keats won the Grade 2 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 110.

Formal Attire filling void for Lizza

If not for a barn fire that killed 14 of his horses last Feb. 23, owner Carl Lizza probably would not have purchased Formal Attire last March. Now, Formal Attire may be the best horse in his stable.

A 3-year-old son of Formal Gold, Formal Attire overcame some trouble to win a nine-furlong maiden race here on Feb. 8. Saturday, he will take on winners for the first time in an entry-level allowance race, also at nine furlongs.

Lizza bid $220,000 for Formal Attire at the Ocala Breeders' Sales Company's March select 2-year-old sale. However, Bobby Hurley, the consignor, bought the colt back. Agent Robert Scanlon eventually convinced Hurley to sell the colt to Lizza for $220,000.

Formal Attire is a half-brother to Molson Million winner Benburb. After finishing sixth in his debut over a sloppy track on Travers Day at Saratoga last year, Formal Attire ran three solid races - finding trouble in two of them - before finally winning. Even in his victory, Formal Attire was slammed out of the gate and then had to steady entering the first turn.

"I didn't know whether to continue to watch the race or walk out the gate," trainer Phil Serpe said. "We've been really, really high on this horse since the fall."

Serpe said that Formal Attire had an undescended, non-functioning testicle removed following his second start.

"He had kind of an ornery attitude," Serpe said. "It turned him around. It's funny, all the trainers I talked to that did that procedure said it made a big difference and all the vets I talked to said it shouldn't make that big a difference."

Formal Attire drew the rail in Saturday's seventh race, which drew a field of seven. Among his toughest rivals are Eugene's Third Son, who earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 101 in a six-furlong entry-level allowance last out and has the pedigree to stretch out in distance. Color Me Gone, who defeated Formal Attire earlier this meet, is also in this field.

Solid work for Belterra

Belterra continues to inch closer to her 2003 debut after working six furlongs from the gate in 1:13 here Thursday.

Belterra, considered among the top 2-year-old fillies in 2001, made only three starts at 3, and has not started since winning an allowance race by 2 3/4 lengths at Churchill Downs on June 6.

"I liked the work this morning a lot better than the one last week," said Carl Nafzger, who trains Belterra for owner-breeder Robert Manfuso. "I don't want to get in anything too heavy with her because it's a long year. She came back blowing a little bit, so this work might knock her down a bit."

Nafzger said Belterra should be ready to race by mid-March and could race in the April 4 Banshee Breeze, named for the Nafzger-trained 1998 champion 3-year-old filly.

"I'd like to win that race anyway," he said.

- For the first time since opening day, all turf races Thursday were taken off the grass and run on the main track. A quick burst of showers came through during training hours, creating a wet main track that was labeled good.

- additional reporting by David Grening