09/28/2005 11:00PM

Competitive Gold Cup card a feast for bettors

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ELMONT, N.Y. - It goes without saying that Breeders' Cup Day will be the best day of racing in New York this year. But in terms of appeal, intrigue, and meaty handicapping puzzles, Saturday's Jockey Club Gold Cup card ranks second.

With five Grade 1 races, Gold Cup Day edges out Belmont Stakes Day, because a) Afleet Alex was not going for a Triple Crown, and b) you still had to put up with a large crowd, stifling humidity, and a torrential downpour walking to the parking lots.

Travers Day checks in a distant third. First of all, if you were trackside and among the 42,000 real people in the building (no "spinners"), it meant you were elbow to elbow all day and had to get on line well before post time to get a bet down. Second, the card looked like a Festival of Chalk going in, and played out that way after Leroidesanimaux, First Samurai, Lost in the Fog, and Flower Alley combined for an all-stakes pick four worth $62.50, which at today's prices barely covers the day's expenses.

Saturday's glorious weather forecast calls for seasonable early-fall temperatures and clear skies, but little else is crystal clear-about how the stakes races will play out. Even though the five stakes - all of them weight-for-age or under allowance conditions - contain an Eclipse Award winner and a couple of exciting runners with perfect records, no knowledgeable handicapper would assign mortal-lock status to anyone, which is a welcome rarity in top-echelon stakes these days.

In chronological order:

Vosburgh: Those constructing pick-four plays on a shoestring caught a break when the Vosburgh was left out of Belmont's late pick four and the NTRA National Pick 4.

Does anyone have a good grasp of this race? Six of the 10 sprinters have recorded a Beyer Speed Figure in the range of 107-111 in at least one of their last two starts, which means about a length could separate all of them at the wire. This does not even include Lion Tamer, idle since Memorial Day because of a wrenched ankle, but a Grade 1 winner with a 111 Beyer top; nor does it include Pomeroy, who freaked winning the Alfred G. Vanderbilt with a 114 at Saratoga last time out.

Pomeroy and Woke Up Dreamin will probably vie for favoritism. Both are vulnerable.

In terms of figures, Pomeroy's three best performances have all come at Saratoga, and the Vanderbilt and last year's win in the King's Bishop are his best by a wide margin.

Woke Up Dreamin has been freshened since winning the rich Smile Sprint Handicap despite a quarter crack, and trainer Bob Baffert is on record as saying he is "going to need a race," as he tightens the screws for a run at the Breeders' Cup Sprint in four weeks.

Beldame/Joe Hirsch Turf Classic: One of the things - make that two of the things - that make this day so appealing are Sweet Symphony and Shakespeare, who bring perfect 4-for-4 records into their respective races for Bill Mott, and look for all the world like they still have room to improve.

The great thing is that each gets asked a big question in the first two legs of Belmont's late pick four.

A win in the Beldame would go a long way toward cementing the 3-year-old filly title for Sweet Symphony, who demolished her field in the Alabama. But this will be a far more difficult assignment, for standing in her way are Ashado, a champion last year; Society Selection, last year's Alabama heroine; and three other older Grade 1 winners.

Shakespeare has been nothing short of sensational in two starts since miraculously returning from a leg fracture. After running down Whale (who was coming off a course-record win at Delaware Park) and running his final sixteenth of a mile in an unreal 5.68 seconds on opening day at Saratoga, Shakespeare won the 1 1/8-mile Belmont Breeders' Cup in record time, running his final furlong in 11.44 seconds while "wrapped up in the final yards . . . with speed to spare."

Can Shakespeare stretch out to 1 1/2 miles, move up to a Grade 1, and pick up a dozen pounds all in one fell swoop?

Jockey Club Gold Cup: Not only is this race East vs. West, it's also the "age-old" question of whether improving 3-year-olds can tackle their elders under weight-for-age conditions. Travers winner Flower Alley and Pennsylvania Derby winner Sun King square off against Lava Man and Borrego, who won the summer's two biggest stakes on the Southern California circuit. Throw in the Midwestern-based Suave, who comes off a game front-end win in the Saratoga Breeders' Cup, and this is just a terrific race.

What do you do with Lava Man, who was vanned off the track because of heat exhaustion after a gut-wrenching third-place effort on the lead in the Pacific Classic?

Flower Bowl: Maybe the most competitive race on the card, and another instance where a Mott-trained contender, Sand Springs, has run the two best last-out figures at eight and nine furlongs, but now stretches out beyond her comfort zone. The other American-based runners are closely matched, not far off Sand Springs' recent exploits, but may be better suited to the distance. Moreover, the European import Lune d'Or has run several races that received Timeform ratings in the 112-116 range; using the rule-of-thumb adjustment of subtracting 12-14 points to estimate likely Beyer ability in the U.S., she falls right in line with the familiar names.