09/17/2003 11:00PM

Cole full of question marks

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ELMONT, N.Y. - The favorite hates soft turf and the top four choices drew the four outside posts. Welcome to the handicapping puzzle that is Saturday's $100,000 Ashley T. Cole Handicap at Belmont Park.

On firm ground, Statement would be the horse to beat in the Cole, a nine-furlong race scheduled for the inner turf. But, with the remnants of Hurricane Isabel threatening to dump upward of an inch of rain on the area Friday, trainer John Kimmel may scratch Statement from the race.

"If it ain't firm he doesn't run his race,'' Kimmel said. "It's hard as a rock right now, which is perfect for him.''

Not only may Kimmel not get his ground, but he lost his rider, Jerry Bailey, to Private Emblem, trained by Steve Asmussen. Private Emblem, who drew post 11, would be the horse to beat on dirt, but Asmussen wasn't discouraged by his colt's third-place finish behind Finality in last month's West Point Handicap on turf at Saratoga.

"He ran a very good race at Saratoga on the grass last time out,'' Asmussen said. "He does good with good spacing between his races. If it rained off we would not mind.''

Celtic Sky, who finished third in this race last year and second in the West Point, will have to overcome post 10. Celtic Sky has been worse than third only once in 10 starts on the Belmont turf. In May he finished second in the Kingston on soft turf.

Haggs Castle (post 12) was beaten a neck in this race last year - when the race was run on soft ground - and came back to win a division of the New York Stallion Stakes on yielding turf at Aqueduct when he broke from post 11.

The value of the race could be Acceptable Venture, a 3-year-old who gets in at 110 pounds.He has been first or second in five starts since returning from a layoff, including a head loss in his only try on turf.