06/01/2008 11:00PM

Cherokee Artist has upset shot

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NEW YORK - The richest race in the country Saturday is the Grade 2, $300,000 Ohio Derby at Thistledown, while Churchill Downs has a stakes tripleheader consisting of the Dogwood and Aristides stakes, both Grade 2, $150,000 events, and the $100,000 Opening Verse Handicap. The feature at Belmont Park is the Grade 2, $150,000 Sands Point Stakes, a turf event under threat of a forecast calling for thunderstorms.

Ohio Derby

Smooth Air was installed as the morning-line favorite, presumably off his second to Big Brown in the Florida Derby two starts back and the likelihood that he was compromised by a bad start when he was a distant 11th behind that opponent in the Kentucky Derby.

I, however, am skeptical about Smooth Air. No one behind him in the Florida Derby ran really quickly, as supported by the fact that the clear third finisher, Tomcito, did not exactly distinguish himself in subsequent losses in the Blue Grass and Peter Pan. Moreover, Smooth Air has yet to demonstrate that he can win around two turns. He is 0 for 3 in such races, as compared to being 3 for 5 in sprints.

I find Z Fortune, the second choice on the morning line, to be much more dangerous. At least Z Fortune raced in striking distance in the Kentucky Derby to upper stretch before fading to 10th. And he ran quite well when he was a close second in the Arkansas Derby two starts back after a wide trip, although the form of that race has since come into question - not because the winner, Gayego, came back to be 17th in the Kentucky Derby after a bad start, but because of the way Gayego backed up in the Preakness.

In any case, I'm going with Cherokee Artist to pull off an upset.

Cherokee Artist comes into this off only a maiden win on the Kentucky Derby undercard at Churchill, a score that was anticipated by some very astute workout-watchers who saw Cherokee Artist outwork the Lane's End winner, Adriano, earlier in the week. That suggests Cherokee Artist probably has some quality, but really means little more. Nevertheless, he was much the best in that maiden win, as he was wide all the way, and yet he still earned a Beyer Speed Figure (93) that is in the ballpark of what Smooth Air and Z Fortune usually get.

Having had only two starts, Cherokee Artist figures to improve, and there was moisture in the track when he won at Churchill - worth noting if the forecast for thunderstorms holds true.

Aristides Stakes

The pace for this race figures to be very different from the one that led to Elite Squadron's romp in the Churchill Downs Stakes on Derby Day. Although the fractions in the Churchill Downs Stakes were fast, so was the track, and Elite Squadron was pretty much unmolested on the front end. This time, Indian Chant and Esperamos might hook up early with Elite Squadron, setting up Noonmark for an off-the-pace score.

Noonmark was a well-beaten second in the Churchill Downs Stakes. But he now cuts back to six furlongs, which might be his favorite distance, and he gets a more favorable pace scenario. And Noonmark showed what he can do with a contested pace when he won the Mr. Prospector Handicap in his first start this year.

Golden Gate Fields Stakes

Plug Me In was a big surprise when he upset a good optional claimer early this month at Hollywood Park, and he is a total unknown going a distance this far. I'm still taking him to go wire to wire.

Plug Me In should have an easy lead here, a lead that could be even easier if Sudan is not used early like he was last time out to assist his late-running stablemate Champs Elysees in the Jim Murray Memorial. And even if Plug Me In's recent win was unexpected, he ran well enough to earn a Beyer Figure of 96, tied for the top last-out Beyer in this field.