02/02/2006 12:00AM

Consistently high figs give Suave upper hand

Laurafina (left), beating 3-year-olds in the Genter Stakes, faces elders in the Suwannee River.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Like many, I was struck by the tenaciousness Magna Graduate displayed in defeating Suave by a head in the Nov. 25 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs. On the basis of that race, Magna Graduate would be a logical choice to win Saturday's Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park.

But the heart he showed does not guarantee he'll again prove superior. Even taking into account the outcome of the Clark, Suave appears the most likely winner of the Donn. The reason? He has consistently run faster than his rivals. He has posted triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures in eight of his last 10 starts.

Many of those figures were earned the hard way, in top-level races. He posted a 107 Beyer Speed Figure in winning the Saratoga Breeders' Cup, a 103 in finishing second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, a 108 in finishing fifth in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and a 106 in the Clark.

Admittedly, some of his opponents in the Donn, notably Magna Graduate and Super Frolic, are capable of running Beyers in the 106-108 range, but they do it with less regularity. That gives Suave an edge, despite his defeats to Magna Graduate and Super Frolic in recent matchups.

Of course, bettors don't need Beyers to determine that this trio of horses is evenly matched. In addition to the close finish between Magna Graduate and Suave in the Clark, Super Frolic and Suave were separated by a neck when fourth and fifth in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

I'm hopeful these head-to-head losses will steer bettors away from Suave - who was favored in the Clark - to the point that he starts as the second or third wagering choice in the race. Odds of 3-1 or more would make him an attractive wager, particularly if the track is wet. (There is a threat of rain Friday and Saturday for the south Florida area.)

Super Frolic is my second choice and another likely overlay. Despite a win in the Hawthorne Gold Cup and a fourth in the Breeders' Cup Classic, he could slip past the betting public, if for no other reason than he was primarily a $40,000 to $100,000 stakes horse before last summer. This could cause class handicappers to question his talent.

Not me. He's legitimate - but not having raced since late October, he is seemingly a little less likely to run back to his best Beyers as Suave.

Taking a shot against Barbaro

Some of the other graded stakes action offers favorable betting opportunities, others not as much. I'm inclined to pass the Hutcheson, seeing no weakness in the comebacking First Samurai other than he will be heavily bet.

I don't see Barbaro as such a clear-cut winner in the Holy Bull. A winner of three starts on turf, he is being tried on dirt for the first time.

His connections are optimistic that he can transfer his turf form to the main track, but no matter how much one analyzes his style or pedigree, it's a guess as to how he'll adapt to it.

I don't fault the decision to try Barbaro on dirt. This is the time and place to do it, against a field that does not represent the cream of the crop. If he fails the test, it costs him little at this time of year. And if he wins or runs well, then he is suddenly a Kentucky Derby contender.

The threat of regression makes him a risky bet at a short price, so I'll try to upset Barbaro with the Todd Pletcher-trained Sunriver. Sunriver has already won around two turns at the Holy Bull's 1 1/8-mile distance, and comes off a runner-up finish in a local allowance Jan. 15.

I'm not discouraged that Sunriver loses regular rider John Velazquez to My Golden Song, another Pletcher-trained colt. Although Velazquez is Pletcher's go-to rider, Pletcher's stable is so deep that he wins often with other riders, sometimes at rewarding prices.

Consider his 2005-2006 record with Rafael Bejarano, who rides Sunriver: 12 for 34 (34 percent winners) and a $2.41 return on investment on $2 bets.

Laurafina's last start helps her cause

Fillies and mares are also showcased at Gulfstream on Saturday, when the Suwannee River Handicap, Davona Dale, and Old Hat will be run. The Suwannee River is the best wagering race of the three.

My choice is Laurafina, who may get overlooked with the move to face elders. With Laurafina coming off a win over 3-year-olds in the Frances Genter Stakes at Calder on Dec. 31, the public will likely perceive that she is making a class hike.

I don't view it that way. Laurafina defeated a deep field of 11 opponents in the Frances Genter, and while they were strictly 3-year-olds, they were a good group.

It has been my experience that fillies, more so than colts, are better able to succeed when moving into races that are not restricted to their age group. Naturally, I'm betting that holds true for Laurafina. She is the choice to beat graded winners Olaya and Noble Stella.