08/08/2002 12:00AM

Best value lies with Volponi


Saturday's major stakes offer a virtual cross-section of American racing, with older males going long on the turf in the $500,000 Sword Dancer Invitational at Saratoga, 3-year-olds contesting one of the season's remaining derbies, the $600,000 West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Park, and 2-year-old fillies going in the $150,000 Sorrento Stakes at Del Mar.

Better yet, each of these races is playable, so let's get right to them.

Sword Dancer

After considering all the pace implications and strategy in the 1 1/2-mile Sword Dancer, the race really boils down to this: It figures to take a Beyer Speed Figure of around 110 to win, and only three of the 11 entered seem capable: With Anticipation, Denon, and Volponi. Since Volponi will be the biggest price of the three, I will go with him.

Volponi has been solid since moving back to the turf last month, even if against softer company than he will face Saturday. He won the Poker at a mile two starts back, earning a 110 Beyer, and was very game finishing second in the Bernard Baruch opening week at Saratoga. Del Mar Show, who won the Baruch, stole a march on Volponi in upper stretch, but Volponi rallied to be beaten only a diminishing neck.

The distance is a big question for Volponi, which is why he will be a nice price. Seven years ago, his Hall of Fame trainer, Phil Johnson, got Kiri's Clown to stretch out and win the Sword Dancer, and Kiri's Clown did so off a stakes performance that wasn't nearly as strong as Volponi's was in the Baruch.

The distance is no problem for With Anticipation, who will probably be tracking Volponi's pace through the early stages, as he won the Sword Dancer last year. Denon, though fast enough to win, could be vulnerable. Even though Denon was in tight between horses when beaten just a neck by With Anticipation in the U.N., he still lacked the big finish that he had showed in shorter races.

West Virginia Derby

As the one who cleared early from post 14 when he won the Lone Star Derby, Wiseman's Ferry is the speed of the speed in this race. But, he lost last time out in the Ohio Derby when he had no business losing, and Cappuchino and Roger E will push him early this time, so let's try to beat him.

I like The Judge Sez Who, who was only 1 1/2 lengths behind Wiseman's Ferry in the Ohio Derby, and whose late run should be better set up Saturday night by a more contested pace. He also gets a major jockey switch to that man, Jerry Bailey.

Captain Squire is also a prime contender, and Pass Rush should be included in exotic wagers. Captain Squire is second start off a layoff, he suitably stretches back out off a fast closing second in the six-furlong Carry Back, and should be positioned early to get first run at the speed. Pass Rush is reunited with Pat Day, whose patience is an asset in this spot, and under whom Pass Rush just missed in the Iowa Derby two back.

Sorrento Stakes

Even though the Sorrento is far from a maiden race, I will take the maiden Tricks Her here to reverse one-length defeats to Buffythecenterfold in her last two starts.

When these two first met in a maiden race in mid-June, Buffythecenterfold dueled outside of Tricks Her, and inside is not where I would want my horse to be in a duel. They met again in the Landaluce last month, and this time Tricks Her broke last in a field of nine, yet rallied gamely between horses through the stretch.

It is interesting to note that in both of those races, Tricks Her was bet more heavily than Buffythecenterfold. I would be surprised if that were the case this time. That, plus the additional half-furlong, and, hopefully, better racing luck, is why Tricks Her appeals.

Voodoo's Sister is also interesting. While it is true there was considerable trouble behind her when she won at first asking at 23-1 last month, it still takes a lot of gas to clear from the 10-hole going five furlongs as she did, and that kind of speed must be respected.