07/03/2003 11:00PM

Colita has conditioning edge on key foes

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PHOENIX - Most of the attention paid to Sunday's Grade 2 Dwyer at Belmont has focused on who isn't running rather than who is. With the likes of Peace Rules, Midas Eyes, and Dynever taking a pass, the race may not have immediate national impact, but it's still an important race.

The 1 1/16-mile race marks the return of unbeaten Sky Mesa. It has been nine months since Sky Mesa ran, but all reports have been positive leading to his 3-year-old debut here. His trainer, John Ward, isn't the type to overmatch or ask too much of his classy absentee runners.

Last year, Sky Mesa won all three of his starts, including the Grade 1 Hopeful and Grade 2 Lane's End Breeders Futurity, making him one of the favorites for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He was, however, sidelined with a foot injury and has been in and out of training since.

He breezed five furlongs Monday in 1:02.24 and was declared ready to go. "He's doing everything we've asked of him," assistant trainer Donna Ward said.

Still, to return in such a spot is asking a lot.

There are similar questions with Best Minister, who is trained by Ken McPeek. A son of Deputy Minister, Best Minister turned the corner in April, winning a nine-furlong maiden race by 12 lengths. He then made an even bigger splash at Pimlico, romping in the Sir Barton. All arrows were pointing up as McPeek aimed him for the Belmont, especially since it was McPeek who a year ago won the Sir Barton with the then unknown Sarava and parlayed it into a huge upset in the Belmont.

But, it wasn't to be. Best Minister came up with a cough the week before the Belmont and was forced to skip the race. He's worked well since and reports are he has doing great, but as with Sky Mesa there are some questions to answer following the setback.

There are no such concerns, however, with Colita. A son of Derby winner Grindstone, Colita found the Sam F. Davis at Tampa and Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct a bit too much to handle, but after two months off he showed new maturity and professionalism, easily winning an allowance route in the mud May 21 at Belmont. Since then, Colita breezed six furlongs in 1:14.29.

"He came back like nothing happened, which I liked because I was a little bit concerned about the weather," said trainer Carlos Morales, referring to the summer temperatures in the New York area the last few days.

Morales said he was glad he and the owners - Team Valor, Mercedes Alvarez, and Luis Morales - opted to pass the Belmont. Morales said he didn't think Colita had fully recovered from his May 21 effort to be prepared for the June 7 Belmont.

"The race was too close, in my opinion," Morales said. "He was also coming back from a small layoff, and he tried hard in that race. I think that's what most of the problem was."

There is no such concern this time around. With Sky Mesa having to deal with all the setbacks and the layoff, and Best Minister coming off the cough, could it be Colita is the horse to beat in the Dwyer? It sure looks that way here.

Battle of unbeatens in Kentucky

Something has to give in the Grade 3 Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs Sunday. That's because the six-furlong race features the unbeaten Cuvee, a romping winner in the Grade 3 Kentucky Breeders' Cup, and the unbeaten Limehouse, winner of the Three Chimneys Juvenile Kentucky Derby Day.

Another unbeaten colt, Next Bandit, winner of the Texas Thoroughbred Association Sales Futurity at Lone Star Park for trainer Bret Calhoun, will also run.

Odds are, however, the race boils down to the Steve Asmussen-trained Cuvee and the brilliant Limehouse, trained by Todd Pletcher. Both are proven at Churchill. Both have shown they are fast. Pletcher originally entered Limehouse in last week's Tremont at Belmont, but said the target was always the Bashford Manor.

When Cuvee romped by more than eight lengths in the Kentucky Breeders' Cup he was able to cruise a half-mile in 46.01 seconds and the five furlongs in 58.05 before winning the 5 1/2-furlong race in 1:04.45. He received a Beyer Speed Figure of 92. Limehouse's Three Chimneys win earned him a Beyer of 91, so the two are pretty close.

The difference is Limehouse rallied from off the pace, easily beating more vaunted stablemates Heckle, who returned to win the Tremont, and Korsakoff. That versatility may allow him to sit, so if someone can soften up Cuvee, Limehouse could benefit.

But as fast as Cuvee is, that's a pretty big "if," isn't it?