09/27/2007 11:00PM

Big gap between best and the rest

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
The showdown between Lawyer Ron (above) and Curlin in the Gold Cup is the highlight of a strong 11-race Belmont card.
ELMONT, N.Y. - Todd Pletcher knows that this is as talented a 3-year-old crop to have come along in years. So, as the trainer of the 4-year-old Lawyer Ron, Pletcher has a healthy respect for Preakness winner Curlin entering their showdown in Sunday's $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.

But Pletcher also believes it will take a special performance by Curlin or anyone else Sunday to knock off Lawyer Ron, whose victories in the Whitney and Woodward at Saratoga have vaulted him to the top of the handicap division.

"Lawyer Ron in the Woodward and Whitney has sort of separated himself from most of the horses that are in training right now," Pletcher said. "His track record in the Whitney was a superb race and his Woodward was right along with it. Any of the 3-year-olds are going to have to take a step forward to get up to that level."

The showdown between Lawyer Ron and Curlin in the Gold Cup is the highlight of a strong 11-race card. Also on the bill are the $400,000 Vosburgh for sprinters, featuring the return of Discreet Cat; the $600,000 Beldame, topped by leading female Ginger Punch; and the $600,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational featuring the $3.3 million earner English Channel.

All four Grade 1 events are part of the Breeders' Cup's "Win and You're In" Challenge, meaning the winners of those four races earn automatic berths in their respective Breeders' Cup races on Oct. 27 at Monmouth Park. All four stakes make up a pick four with a $400,000 guaranteed pool, and all four will be shown live during a two-hour broadcast on ESPN beginning at 4 p.m. Eastern.

Lawyer Ron earned an automatic berth into the $5 million Classic when he won the Whitney in track record time of 1:46.64. Five weeks later, Lawyer Ron romped to an 8 1/4-length victory in the Woodward. Both of those races were at 1 1/8 miles at Saratoga. The question is whether he can duplicate those efforts going 1 1/4 miles at Belmont.

As a 3-year-old, Lawyer Ron went 0 for 2 at 1 1/4 miles, but Pletcher - who didn't have Lawyer Ron when he finished 12th in the Kentucky Derby - said he believes the horse was too rank last year to get 10 furlongs. The key to the colt's success is the fact he has become much more relaxed.

Pletcher said he believes that Lawyer Ron would be even more relaxed if he happened to make the lead Sunday, which is quite possible given the lack of early speed in the field. Lawyer Ron will break from post 6 in the seven-horse field.

"He'd probably relax more if he were on the lead," Pletcher said. "Most horses do when they've got nothing to follow. They tend to prick their ears and look around."

At some point, if and when Lawyer Ron gets to looking around, he'll probably spot Curlin, who makes just his second start since falling a head short to Pletcher's filly Rags to Riches in the Belmont Stakes.

Curlin finished third behind the Pletcher-trained Any Given Saturday in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth, and has been pointed to the Gold Cup ever since. Curlin, trained by Steve Asmussen, has done the bulk of his training in Saratoga the past two months and his connections noticed that he has really come around since Labor Day, when he breezed five furlongs in 1:01.80 over the training track.

"I thought that's when he definitely started going the right way," said Scott Blasi, Asmussen's assistant, who spent all summer with Curlin. "Then he had two very good three-quarter-mile works up there."

Because he lost the Belmont, Curlin doesn't get much credit for running a strong race that day. He settled nicely behind a slow pace, split horses leaving the five-sixteenths pole and, like Rags to Riches, ran a sub-24-second final quarter in the 1 1/2-mile race.

Curlin appeared to be a little flat when he finished third in the Haskell behind Any Given Saturday and Hard Spun, but the race came up a solid one based on speed figures.

"I believe his race in the Jockey Club will be very similar to the Haskell as far as that's where he's at physically and mentally," Asmussen said. "I do think we can add to that easily. Belmont definitely fits the style of the horse he is."

Curlin will break from post 5 under Robby Albarado.

If Lawyer Ron doesn't make the lead, it will be because Rafael Bejarano will send Indy Wind away from the gate for owner-trainer Amy Tarrant. Indy Wind won the Grade 3 Skip Away at Monmouth on the pace.

"He can't get dirt in his face," Tarrant said. "I have to have him up with some of the front-runners. I'd rather have him give a good effort and be tired up front than not get into the race because he fights the dirt."

While Lawyer Ron showed a fondness for Saratoga, Political Force has an affinity for Belmont. Trained by Hall of Famer and upset specialist Allen Jerkens, Political Force won the Grade 1 Suburban here in July after running second in the Metropolitan Handicap and third in the Westchester.

Completing the field are Sun King, 0 for 15 in Grade 1 races, including a third in the 2004 Gold Cup, Brother Bobby, and Malibu Moonshine.

- additional reporting by Mike Farrell