06/28/2006 11:00PM

Churchill pick four the way to go


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - By the look of things, Saturday's Firecracker Handicap at Churchill Downs lacks an explosive payoff. Miesque's Approval, one of the best turf milers in the country, looms a short-priced standout in a field that appears soft by Grade 2 standards.

Unless he goes badly off form, he figures to win - at 4-5 or so. No fun, or much reward, in simply betting that.

To make a little money Saturday at Churchill, it seems better to play the multi-race gimmicks, specifically the late pick four, which includes the Firecracker as the third leg of the bet. The wager, which can be bet in $1 increments, carries a guaranteed minimum pool of $100,000.

Here are the horses I like and how I plan to play the wager, beginning with the first leg, race 8.

Race 8: Provided this five-furlong race for fillies and mares stays on the turf, I'll use three horses: Special Hunter, who led from start to finish vs. $50,000 stock in a similar race June 1, and Bojangle's Cat and Mighty Patriot, a pair of class droppers who were recently unplaced in a second-level allowance.

All three have won short-distance turf races, and each seems to be worth the $30,000 claiming price.

Special Hunter (No. 8) rates a narrow edge, having defeated higher-priced claimers June 1. She earned a good Beyer Speed Figure - a career-best 86 - but in terms of final time, her race was not overwhelming. Her time of 57.69 seconds - albeit over a good course - was the slowest of 16 five-furlong turf races this meet at Churchill Downs.

Bojangle's Cat (7), trained by leading trainer Dale Romans, has underachieved in her last two races but also merits play in a race that marks her first start for a claiming price. She ran a close seventh in the Mamzelle earlier this meet, and won a first-level allowance over this course in June of last year.

Mighty Patriot (4) rounds out my top three. Coming off a fourth-place finish June 9 - a race in which she finished approximately a length in front of sixth-place Bojangle's Cat - she figures to challenge against claiming foes. She has yet to win in three starts over this course, but was third behind course-record holder Unbridled Sidney in a second-level allowance at Churchill in June of last year.

Race 9: With five of the seven entrants most comfortable racing on or close to the pace, this $50,000 claiming race is perfectly suited for an effective stalker like Halo's Tiger (4). Dropped from $62,500 company for the third start of his form cycle, he appears primed for a top performance.

Furthermore, he ran well in that $62,500 race June 10, finishing second to Rogue Scholar, who freaked by racing six furlongs in 1:08.51. That wasn't Halo's Tiger's only good race, either. The Beyer Figure of 87 he earned for that effort was off his peak Beyers in the low 90's.

I also like the fact that jockey Brian Peck has the mount. He twice rode the Halo's Tiger to victory at Sunland Park over the winter, both times at Saturday's distance of 6 1/2 furlongs. Peck doesn't attract much mutuel attention, but has a good record when teaming up with Halo Tiger's trainer, Steve Asmussen.

Race 10: Miesque's Approval (1) upset Breeders' Cup Mile winner Artie Schiller in the Maker's Mark Mile, and faces no such rival here. He has blossomed under the care of trainer Marty Wolfson, who is potent shipping horses from his south Florida base.

I can't envision any of his opponents challenging him. Most are money-allowance runners or fringe players in stakes events.

Race 11: Sheets (6), a homebred starting for owner-breeder Robert Masterson and trainer T.V. Smith, ran very well at first asking, overcoming a slow start to finish second to runaway winner Change Up on June 10. She launched a powerful four-wide move on the turn to reach contention, before flattening out in the stretch when lugging in a bit. She figures to improve following that experience, and rates as the choice.

Cohiba Miss (5), a quick starter, popped the gate last time and set the pace before fading to fourth. That earned her a 71 Beyer, the best figure in the race. Her trainer, Bernie Flint, has great numbers with 2-year-olds, and has a history of success using riders not among the meet leaders. Joe Johnson rides.

The ticket: I'll play the horses outlined above, using six combinations in $5 increments and leading to a total of $30 wagered. The bet is a $5 pick three partial wheel: 4, 7, 8 with 4 with 1 with 5, 6.