11/19/2004 12:00AM

Biggest test yet for Friendly Island


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Todd Pletcher will be losing many of his top sprinters to retirement at year's end. He appears to have at least one solid replacement.

Friendly Island is a supremely talented New York-bred sprinter. He will get his sternest test to date Thurs-day, when he faces open stakes company for the first time in the $100,000 Fall Highweight Handicap at Aqueduct. The Grade 3 event, run at six furlongs, kicks off NYRA's HolidayFest weekend consisting of six stakes.

Friendly Island, a 3-year-old son of Crafty Friend, soundly defeated the top New York-bred sprinters in training when he won the $125,000 Hudson Handicap on New York Showcase Day. That was his fourth consecutive victory and fifth overall from six starts. His only loss came in the Mike Lee Handicap, a race from which Friendly Island emerged with shin splints.

While it remains to be seen if Friendly Island can develop into a horse along the lines of Pletcher's Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Speightstown, what he has done has impressed Pletcher.

"It's very hard for any horse to win four races in a row," said Pletcher, who also trained the talented sprinter Strong Hope. "When you start doing that it's an indication of some quality. He's a great-looking horse with a ton of speed who is ratable as well. He's got a lot of assets that you'd like a nice horse to have."

Friendly Island has faced open company once before, dead-heating for the win with My Poker Player, who came back to win the Maryland Million Sprint at Pimlico.

Among Friendly Island's competition in the Fall Highweight will be Bwana Charlie, a multiple graded stakes winner who finished fourth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, and Medallist, winner of the Dwyer and Withers Stakes. Others expected to run include Don Six, Dubai Sheikh, Eavesdropper, Papua, Thunder Touch, and Uncle Camie.

On Friday, Friendly Island worked an easy half-mile in 50.18 seconds over the Belmont training track.

Weight assignments were released for the race Friday. Lion Tamer, a Pletcher-trained colt unlikely to run, was made the 140-pound highweight. Friendly Island was assigned 130 pounds. Bwana Charlie is expected to be the starting highweight at 137 pounds.

McLaughlin doubles his pleasures

Kiaran McLaughlin will likely send out two runners in both the Fall Highweight and Friday's Grade 2, $150,000 Top Flight Handicap.

McLaughlin will be the hunter in the Fall Highweight with longshots Eavesdropper and Thunder Touch; he will be the hunted in the Top Flight with top contenders Bending Strings and Roar Emotion.

McLaughlin is hoping Bending Strings could be this year's version of Randaroo. Last year, Randaroo won the Safely Kept Stakes in Maryland and the First Flight and Top Flight handicaps at Aqueduct before finishing second in the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes at Hollywood Park.

Bending Strings, who won the Nassau County at Belmont in the spring but who struggled in the summer, has won the Safely Kept and the Grade 2 First Flight in her last two starts. McLaughlin is also eyeing the La Brea next month.

Like Randaroo, Bending Strings must prove she can be successful at the one-mile distance of the Top Flight.

"She is a one-run sprinter, basically," said McLaughlin. "Going seven- eighths would probably be her best distance because you're going to have a hot pace. It worked out perfectly last time."

McLaughlin said he would probably run Roar Emotion, who comes off a second-place finish in the Grade 3 Turnback the Alarm Handicap last out. McLaughlin said his initial intent was to wait for the Ladies Handicap on Dec. 18, but Roar Emotion is doing so well McLaughlin said he doesn't want to wait another month to run her.

Others pointing to the Top Flight are Daydreaming, Passing Shot, Pop Princess, Susan's Angel, and Tempus Fugit.

Wonder Again to race again in 2005

Wonder Again, the multiple Grade 1 stakes winner who finished third in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, will race next year as a 6-year-old, owner John Phillips said Friday.

"At this point we're planning to run again next year," said Phillips, who along with his wife, Joan, also bred Wonder Again. "She had a really wonderful year this year. There were some disappointments, but I think they were disappointments not because she didn't run well but because that's the way racing is sometimes."

Wonder Again went 2 for 5 this year with wins in the New York Handicap and Diana Handicap. The biggest disappointment was a sixth-place finish as the 9-10 favorite in the Flower Bowl, a race in which Wonder Again could never get covered up.

"I think we learned a lot about her this year and how to run more effectively, and she's sound now," Phillips said.

Phillips said the fact the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships will be held at Belmont Park in 2005 was "very significant" in deciding to bring Wonder Again back. Wonder Again is 4 for 8 at Belmont with graded stakes wins at age 3, 4, and 5.

"I'm more than happy to take on Ouija Board on her own turf with a little bigger stretch and hopefully a more advantageous post position," said Phillips, who added that he felt post 12 compromised Wonder Again's chances in the Filly and Mare Turf.

Velazquez has four-win day

John Velazquez, who entered Friday with just seven winners at the meet, won four races from five mounts on the card. He is now 11 for 70 at the meet.

His fourth winner came aboard Coast Line ($8.40) in the ninth, which made one handicapper very happy. There was only one winning pick six ticket sold, which returned $79,028. There was a carryover of $21,131 entering the card. According to NYRA officials, the winning ticket was purchased through AmericaTab, an account wagering service based in Ohio.

The winning combination of 7-4-1-8-6-2 consisted of Phone in the Money ($37.60), Successfully Sweet ($4.90), Golden Blaise ($21.80), Peter's Puddle ($7), Personal Touch ($4.90), and Coast Line ($8.40).

* Father Weist, second in an entry-level allowance race at Keeneland in his last start, worked five furlongs in 1:01.76 on Friday at Belmont Park in preparation for next Saturday's $200,000 Remsen Stakes.