01/31/2008 12:00AM

Big dreams get a dose of racing reality

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Barrier Reef, Cave's Valley, and Roman Emperor have all given their connections some reason to dream about the first Saturday in May. But if those dreams are to continue, each horse must put in a performance in Saturday's $100,000 Whirlaway Stakes that is better than his previous outing.

That trio of 3-year-olds, as well as the game Spanky Fischbein, are part of a seven-horse field entered in the Whirlaway, scheduled for 1 1/16 miles over Aqueduct's inner track.

Cave's Valley and Spanky Fischbein will likely vie for favoritism in the Whirlaway. Cave's Valley won his first three starts - including a pair of two-turn stakes at Delaware Park - before finishing seventh in the Grade 3 Delta Jackpot Stakes in December.

Trainer Michael Trombetta said his horse didn't care for the Delta surface. Hoping to avoid a repeat of that scenario, Trombetta shipped Cave's Valley from Maryland to Aqueduct earlier this week, and the colt breezed a half-mile in 48.76 seconds over the inner track on Tuesday. Mario Pino was aboard for the work and will ride Cave's Valley from post 3 on Saturday.

"Mario seemed to be comfortable with the way he handled the track," said Trombetta, who two years ago campaigned Kentucky Derby favorite Sweetnorthernsaint. "If I could give him a run over that track, I thought it would be to his advantage. If nothing else, it makes me feel better."

Cave's Valley has shown versatility in his running styles, winning the Whirling Ash from off the pace before winning the Dover on the front end.

There appears to be ample speed in this field with Spanky Fischbein, Sonic Boom, and perhaps Apple Special being forwardly placed. Spanky Fischbein has dropped narrow decisions to the undefeated Giant Moon in his last two starts. Spanky Fischbein was very game in the Count Fleet, falling a neck short while dueling along the rail.

"It's nice that [tenacity] has come over time, but it's one of those things you don't know it's in the horse till they're put to the test," said Seth Benzel, assistant to trainer Todd Pletcher "He's very game and fought on courageously; that's something we can look forward to having leading him over there."

With Mike Luzzi in Florida, Stewart Elliott will ride Spanky Fischbein from post 7.

The Pletcher barn will also send out Texas Wildcatter, who comes off a first-level allowance win at Philadelphia Park.

"I think he's slowly improving," Benzel said. "When he came around as a 2-year-old, he was kind of a playful sort to where if he needed experience and time to come together, it wouldn't be a big surprise."

Barrier Reef overcame his own immaturities to win a maiden race here on Dec. 8, but finished a nonthreatening fourth in the Count Fleet. His trainer, Tom Albertrani, said he seems like an improved horse entering the Whirlaway.

"For some reason he came back and was more tired than you'd normally want to see," Albertrani said. "Maybe he got more out of it than anything. It seems like he's been training more aggressively going into this race."

Trainer Steve Klesaris is hoping Roman Emperor gets a better trip than the one he had when third in the Count Fleet. Jeremy Rose rides from the rail.