10/10/2007 11:00PM

Criminologist may have key edges

EmailELMONT, N.Y. - Dance Away Capote and Criminologist are among the two most rapidly improving turf fillies or mares on the grounds. The likelihood of soft ground and a soft early pace may favor Criminologist when the two meet in Saturday's $100,000 Athenia Handicap at Belmont Park.

The Grade 3 Athenia, scheduled for 1 1/16 miles on the Widener turf course, drew a field of only six. Trainer Christophe Clement was planning to run Meribel, but changed his mind because of rain Thursday and a forecast for more into Friday.

In addition to soft turf, another handicapping factor in the Athenia could be the placement of the temporary rails. On Thursday, the rails were out 25 feet from the hedge on both turf courses, though John Passero, the New York Racing Association's director of racing surfaces, said they could be brought in over the weekend.

With the rails out that far, horses who make wide-sweeping moves - like the one Dance Away Capote made winning the Grade 3 Noble Damsel Handicap last month - could be at a disadvantage.

Criminologist was compromised by a wide trip and some traffic trouble when she was sixth to Meribel in the Foresta Stakes here on Belmont Stakes Day. Criminologist flourished at Saratoga, winning a third-level allowance race and the Perfect Sting Stakes, in which she set a course record of 1:45.61 for 1 1/8 miles.

"She ran good on a hard track at Saratoga, and she ran good on a soft track at Keeneland in the spring," trainer Shug McGaughey said. "I'd rather it not be a bog. I thought on Belmont Day she could have been second."

Criminologist, who will break from post 5 under John Velazquez, figures to stalk Beautiful Daniele, who looms the main speed under Pablo Fragoso. On paper, Beautiful Daniele appears to prefer firm ground to soft.

Dance Away Capote is 2 for 3 on turf, with her win in a restricted stakes here in July coming over good ground. That day, the rail opened up perfectly for Dance Away Capote. In last month's Noble Damsel - when the rails were at nine feet - Dance Away Capote made a huge wide move around the turn and powered home a 4 1/2-length winner.

Fantastic Shirl ran second to Dance Away Capote that day, rallying from well off the pace. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin believes Fantastic Shirl can be effective laying closer to the pace.

McLaughlin also sends out I'm in Love, winner of a minor stakes at Delaware last out. Mabadi, who came out of her last-place finish in the Glens Falls Handicap with a "wicked throat infection," according to trainer Gary Contessa, completes the field.