02/19/2004 12:00AM

Docent should get better setup

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NEW YORK - If the racing every weekend were like it was last weekend, most of us wouldn't be able to take it. You have to catch your breath somewhere, and this weekend looks like one of those opportunities.

The big event on Saturday, both in terms of purse and ranking, is the Grade 2, $150,000 Buena Vista Handicap at Santa Anita. Unfortunately, there is some uncertainty concerning the Buena Vista, which is scheduled for turf, because the forecast calls for a 50 percent chance of showers. Still, if the Buena Vista has to be run this weekend, it falls on the right day, because Sunday is supposed to be a washout in the Los Angeles area.

There is a 20 percent chance of showers Saturday in south Florida, and management at Gulfstream Park must surely be pulling for the heavily favored other side. That is because the featured $100,000 Palm Beach Stakes for 3-year-olds is scheduled for the turf.

There is also a stakes doubleheader at Tampa Bay Downs: the $100,000 Sam F. Davis, and the $60,000 Suncoast for fillies. Both races are for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles.

The three other six-figure stakes Saturday are the Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park, the Chou Croute Handicap for fillies and mares at Fair Grounds, and the Ken Maddy Sprint for California-breds at Golden Gate. Each is worth $100,000.

Here are my three spotlight stakes:

Essex Handicap

Docent, the pick here, did all the dirty work when he competed in a recent local prep for this race. Oaklawn Park-loving Crafty Shaw was loose on the lead through fractions that were soft, but would have been even softer had Docent not taken up the thankless task of trying to keep Crafty Shaw honest. Even though this is not the way Docent prefers to run, it looked like his effort would be rewarded when he overtook Crafty Shaw in the stretch. But, Crafty Shaw came back and took a photo from Docent by an improbable bob of the head.

Things will be different this time. Pie N Burger, who is usually very close early in strong-paced races, and figures to show even more early foot being fresh, should combine with Crafty Shaw for fractions that should at least be honest. That will allow Docent to return to his more successful running style of sitting a little farther back, and may even allow him a perfect stalking trip.

Palm Beach Stakes

Kitten's Joy will be the favorite off his going-away score in the Tropical Park Derby at Calder, but I'm going to try and beat him with a horse who had a nightmare trip in that same race, Commendation.

Commendation broke from the 11 post, the extreme outside, in the Tropical Park Derby, and ducked out at the start. Then, instead of being caught wide on the first turn, which often happens to horses that poorly drawn, he managed to work himself toward the rail, only to be sawed off and forced to check early on the first turn. On top of that, Commendation was caught in traffic down the backstretch, and again through the stretch. All things considered, it was a small miracle he finished as close as he did: sixth, beaten six lengths.

Also, Kitten's Joy has the highest Beyer Speed Figure on turf of 91, but as a 2-year-old last October, Commendation earned an 89 Beyer winning the Bourbon County Stakes at Keeneland.

Sam F. Davis Stakes

Trainer Nick Zito sent out his top two Kentucky Derby hopefuls, Eurosilver and Birdstone, to winning 3-year-old debuts. The Cliff's Edge, third on Zito's Derby depth chart, will be favored here to make it a hat trick. But, he is vulnerable, and for more than the fact he is seriously handicapped by the 12 post. The Cliff's Edge's two most compelling victories last year came in his two races around one turn. Despite his win in the two-turn Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, he may not be as effective going long.

I'll take Zakocity, who has run consistently well in his last five starts on dirt - all on Florida's east coast, all at this 1 1/16-mile distance, and every one good enough for a competitive Beyer of between 83 and 87.