03/17/2005 1:00AM

Burning Sun has wicked late kick


NEW YORK - Fair Grounds has the richest race in the nation Saturday in the $500,000 Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap. With the $125,000 Duncan F. Kenner Breeders' Cup Handicap and the $100,000 Gentilly Handicap also on the program, Fair Grounds has the richest stakes card in the country as well. But, with four important prep races for the Kentucky Derby on the schedule, the focus Saturday will very much be on 3-year-old racing.

The $250,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park features an intriguing match-up between Afleet Alex, the tepid future-book favorite for the Kentucky Derby, and Remsen winner Rockport Harbor. Meanwhile, at Santa Anita, a strong renewal of the $250,000 San Felipe Stakes marks the return of Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Wilko.

Highly fancied Triple Crown prospect Sun King goes in the $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby, the centerpiece of a stakes-filled card at Tampa Bay Downs. Finally, the $150,000 Gotham Stakes is the headliner at Aqueduct.

Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap

Burning Sun may have been the beaten favorite when third in the Mac Diarmida Handicap in his first start this year. But, he turned in a deceptively strong effort while coming off a long layoff, and is a solid play.

The pace in the Mac Diarmida was incredibly slow considering the blazing times that have been posted on the turf all meet at Gulfstream Park - so slow, in fact, that the first two finishers in that 1 3/8-mile race went around the track one-two. As for Burning Sun, he was beaten only a length for all the money after losing a bit of momentum in the stretch by having to angle off the rail for running room, and yet he still went his last three-eighths of a mile in less than 34 seconds, which is excellent. With the kind of brush he showed late last time out, Burning Sun is capable of breaking this race open into the stretch.

Honor in War should be used with Burning Sun in exotic wagers. He finished second in both of his starts this year over the Fair Grounds turf course, rallying well despite encountering slow fractions, and could be set for a peak performance third start off a layoff.

San Felipe Stakes

Like Burning Sun, Giacomo was third as the favorite in his last start, but ran a lot better than it may appear on paper and is the firm pick.

Giacomo was beaten only a little more than a length most recently in the Sham Stakes, but the fact that he was even that close is a credit to him considering his trip. He was caught four to five wide on the first turn, and three wide on the far turn, and also lost a shoe during the running. Moreover, the Sham has since proven to be a solid race, as the winner, Going Wild, came back to be a fine second to Declan's Moon in the Santa Catalina, and the fourth-place finisher, Uncle Denny, came back to win the El Camino Real Derby in decisive fashion. As for Giacomo, it was no surprise he ran that well, as two starts back in the Hollywood Futurity he was second, a nose in front of Wilko and beaten only a length by 2-year-old champ Declan's Moon.

Gotham Stakes

Given how well Naughty New Yorker ran going two turns in his last three starts, it is understandable that trainer Pat Kelly would have preferred to keep his colt routing instead of cutting back to the one-turn mile of this race. But, Naughty New Yorker's strong late kick is nicely set up here, and I like him to get up in time.

Between Distinctive Trick, Galloping Grocer, and Maddy's Lion, the early pace promises to be fast and contested. Naughty New Yorker is certainly good enough to capitalize on this scenario, and it is also worth noting that he recorded his maiden victory four starts back at the distance over the track.


Aqueduct: Gotham Stakes
3-year-olds, 1 mile

Approximate post: Eastern-4:54 p.m., Central-3:54 p.m., Mountain-2:54 p.m., Pacific-1:54 p.m.; Ozone Park, N. Y., forecast: Partly cloudy, 50 degrees

1Distinctive Trick73848020-1
2Mr. Congeniality70806820-1
3Galloping Grocer93102959-5
5Maddy's Lion8674668-1
6Naughty New Yorker9696907-2
7Lieutenant Danz75665950-1

Odds by Paul Malecki

Fair Grounds: Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Mem. Hcp.
4 and up, about 1 1/8 miles, turf

Approximate post: E-5:25 p.m., C-4:25 p.m., M-3:25 p.m., P-2:25 p.m.; New Orleans, La., forecast: Slight chance of rain, 72 degrees

1Candid Glen87899320-1
2Social King91888630-1
3Rapid Proof96969220-1
4Burning Sun981001005-1
7America Alive92969215-1
9Honor in War9696918-1
10A to the Z1061111032-1
11G P Fleet9991987-2

Odds by Kim Nelson

Santa Anita: San Felipe Stakes
3-year-olds, 1 1/16 miles

Approximate post: E-7:00 p.m., C-6:00 p.m., M-5:00 p.m., P-4:00 p.m.; Arcadia, Ca., forecast: Showers likely, 56 degrees

1Don't Get Mad8990847-2
2Lucky J. H.88838515-1
3In Excelsis65n/an/a20-1
5Roman Ruler91871065-2
7Golden Shine9685789-2

Odds by Michael Hammersly