07/29/2004 12:00AM

Cutback benefits Society Selection

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NEW YORK - Saratoga wastes no time demonstrating why it is widely regarded as the track with the best racing in the country at this time of year, with a Grade 1 stakes doubleheader Saturday, the first of six Saturday programs at the meet.

The richest race on the card is the Diana Handicap, which, with a purse of $500,000, is itself a prize well worth winning for filly and mare turf specialists. But the Diana can also be employed as a stepping-stone to next month's important Beverly D. Stakes at Arlington Park on the Arlington Million undercard.

The other Grade 1 race Saturday at Saratoga is the $250,000 Test, a seven-furlong race for 3-year-old fillies. It wasn't so long ago that the Test was used as a springboard to the Alabama Stakes later in the meet. The Test, however, has evolved into a goal of its own and is usually one of the most entertaining events on the New York Racing Association stakes calendar.

Three-year-old fillies are also in the spotlight Saturday at Del Mar, where five will contest the $150,000 San Clemente Handicap on the turf. The San Clemente is the local prep for next month's Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks.

Otherwise, the pickings for major stakes racing Saturday are slim, with the exception of the $350,000 Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park. Unfortunately, although it has a lucrative purse and is run at a great racetrack, the Washington Park Handicap attracted a field of only five. No doubt, this race was hurt by the fact that the feature next Saturday at Saratoga is the Grade 1, $750,000 Whitney Handicap.

Here are my three spotlight stakes, in order of preference:

Test

Dazzle Me was impressive winning the Azalea last time out, and Friendly Michelle was much the best when she won the Prioress in her last out. Both of those victories, however, came at six furlongs. The additional furlong in the Test can often prove to be a killer, and I prefer a filly with the foundation to handle it. That's one of the reasons why I'm going with Society Selection.

Society Selection is cutting back in distance after competing in races at nine, eight, eight, and nine furlongs in her last four starts. Three of those efforts were good, particularly a going-away score in the Comely and a second in the Acorn, in which she edged Friendly Michelle for second despite lacking racing room late on the far turn and into the stretch.

Last time out, Society Selection was uncharacteristically dull in the Mother Goose, but first time Lasix here suggests a legitimate excuse. And it should be noted that Society Selection came from off the pace to romp in her career debut at Saratoga last summer.

Diana Handicap

This really looks like a two-horse race between Intercontinental and Wonder Again. Though Intercontinental beat Wonder Again when she won the Just a Game nearly two months ago, I'm opting for Wonder Again. Here's why:

Wonder Again was coming off an eight-month layoff when she finished sixth in the Just a Game, and she regained top form when she galloped in the New York Handicap. She likes Saratoga, having won two of four turf starts there, including a stakes at the distance over the Mellon course. Intercontinental made it 3 for 3 in this country in the Just a Game, but this will be her first appearance at Saratoga and first try at 1 1/8 miles. That, combined with the fact that Intercontinental will be a heavy favorite, makes Wonder Again an appealing alternative at better odds.

Washington Park Handicap

The Lady's Groom is the controlling speed here, and controlling speed is always dangerous. But the Lady's Groom has been having difficulty closing the deal lately. So, my pick is the vastly improved Colonial Colony.

Colonial Colony surprised everyone two starts back, when, at 62-1, he won a photo in the Stephen Foster over Southern Image, who would be 2-5 in this spot. At the time, that upset could have been considered a fluke, but Colonial Colony proved it wasn't in his last outing. He was a deceptively good fourth in the Suburban to Peace Rules, who would be 3-5 in this race.