02/14/2002 1:00AM

Drama Critic steps up


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - A week ago, Mongoose came out of a fourth-level optional claiming allowance race to win the Grade 1 Donn Handicap. Saturday, Drama Critic will attempt to successfully make the same class jump when he faces 11 other turf specialists in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap.

The $200,000 stakes at 1 3/8 miles on the grass highlights the undercard on Saturday's 12-race Fountain of Youth program.

Unlike Mongoose, who was making his debut against Grade 1 company in the Donn, Drama Critic is no stranger to Grade 1 competition. He ran in three such races in 2000, including the Man o' War, in which he finished third, beaten just over a length by Fantastic Light. Sidelined twice during his career because of knee surgery, Drama Critic launched his 2002 campaign with a two-length victory over optional claiming/allowance company here on Jan. 12.

"We didn't know if he would come back from a second knee surgery but off that last race he appears to be back to where he was at during his 4-year-old campaign," said trainer Mark Hennig. "And he seems to love this course."

Drama Critic is one of at least a handful of legitimate contenders in a wide-open race in which only four pounds separate the highweight from the low.

Band Is Passing is the 117-pound highweight despite the fact he has never won beyond 1 1/8 miles or started since winning Calder's Tropical Turf Handicap on Dec. 8. He did finish third behind Royal Anthem in the 2000 Gulfstream Breeders' Cup and could prove the controlling speed on Saturday.

"He's been the highweight in every race he's run for the last two years," trainer Stanley Ersoff said of his homebred Band Is Passing. "They must think he's a pretty good horse. He was third the only time he's run beyond nine furlongs, and I think he can do the distance. I'm a bit concerned because he's been away, but I think he'll give a good account of himself."

Among the other contenders are Unite's Big Red and Eltawaasul, second and third, respectively, in the Mac Diarmida Handicap on Jan. 20; Mr. Pleasentfar, winner of the Red Smith Handicap but a troubled 11th in the W.L. McKnight Handicap in his last start; Profit Option, upset winner of the McKnight; Cetawayo; and Revved Up.

Revved Up will be ridden by Jerry Bailey who has won the last two runnings of this race and six of the last nine.