02/05/2004 1:00AM

In this case, 8-5 is a bargain

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NEW YORK - Claiming races may be the bread and butter of racing programs, but you couldn't tell that by Saturday's schedule, which finds stakes-filled cards at tracks on each side of the nation and points in between.

The big race of the day is the $500,000 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park, featuring an attractive matchup between Medaglia d'Oro and Funny Cide. But, the Donn is only one of three stakes to be run at Gulfstream on Saturday. The $150,000 Davona Dale for 3-year-old fillies, and the $100,000 Deputy Minister for sprinters will also be decided there.

The main event at Santa Anita is the $300,000 Strub Stakes, and it is well supported by the $150,000 San Vicente, a seven-furlong race that can be used by 3-year-olds as a springboard to critical two-turn Kentucky Derby preps.

There is a stakes tripleheader at Turf Paradise in Phoenix consisting of the $150,000 Turf Paradise Breeders' Cup, the $100,000 Turf Paradise Derby, and the $75,000 Arizona Oaks.

And if that isn't enough for you, Saturday evening at Delta Downs is Louisiana Premier Night, with six stakes for Louisiana breds worth a total of - thanks to slot revenues - $800,000, topped by the $200,000 Championship.

Here are my three spotlight stakes:

Donn Handicap

It is not my style to pick a horse who is an 8-5 favorite on the morning line, as Medaglia d'Oro is in this spot. But, Funny Cide may attract enough support at the windows to enable Medaglia d'Oro to go off at odds somewhere close to his morning-line price. And if that happens, then Medaglia d'Oro will actually be an overlay, because in my mind, he is 3-5 to win this race.

Medaglia d'Oro is simply faster and better than anyone in this field. He routinely matches or surpasses Funny Cide's career best Beyer Speed Figure of 114, earned in last year's Preakness, having done so in four of his five starts last year. Most recently, Medaglia d'Oro was an excellent second to Pleasantly Perfect after disputing a strong pace in the Breeders' Cup Classic, leaving Funny Cide a distant ninth. Pleasantly Perfect last week was quite impressive winning the San Antonio Handicap. On top of it all, some of Medaglia d'Oro's best performances, like his victory in the 2002 Jim Dandy and his wins in the Strub and Whitney last year, came when he was fresh.

The potential beauty of this race is in trying to knock Funny Cide out of the exotic wagers altogether. In that pursuit, I will take Medaglia d'Oro over Puzzlement and Bowman's Band, the one-two finishers in the Hal's Hope Handicap opening day.

Strub

During was game winning the recent prep for this, the San Fernando. But they came home slowly in that race, with none of the late runners distinguishing themselves by closing effectively. And, there is even more speed in this spot.

In other words, I want someone who doesn't come out of the San Fernando, and I have landed on Buddy Gil. Buddy Gil was awful in the Malibu in his first start since last year's Kentucky Derby, but he has worked well since, and his barn has strong numbers with horses second off a layoff, and going from sprints to routes. Buddy Gil was able to close effectively to win the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby over the track last year, and he gets a great set-up here.

Davona Dale

I have nothing but respect for Society Selection, who has already proven she can fire big fresh, who gets a huge jockey switch to Jerry Bailey, and who is in the hands of a master in Allen Jerkens. Nevertheless, I'm going with Last Song here.

Last Song could not have been more impressive winning an allowance race at the distance over the track last time out by nearly nine lengths while having plenty left in reserve. Since that was her first start in more than two months, I expect the beautifully bred Last Song to take another big step forward, and if she does, even Society Selection's best effort may not be good enough.