07/02/2007 12:00AM

Dwyer could give leg up a to late-season star

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NEW YORK - The second season for 3-year-olds - the one that comes after the Triple Crown - begins in earnest Wednesday at Belmont Park with one of the deeper renewals of the Dwyer Stakes in recent years. And people will be paying close attention, not only for what the Dwyer might produce in potential competition down the road for Street Sense and Curlin, but also for possible starters in upcoming races against older horses.

That's right, older horses.

While it is conjecture whether reigning Horse of the Year Invasor would have come back as strong as he was before he went to win the Dubai World Cup, there is no debate that his retirement will have a profound domino effect on the handicap division. Older males who might have been inclined to duck Invasor now have little stopping them from stepping up and running in the big races Invasor would have targeted. These big races still won't be nearly as tough to win as they would have been, and the races those older horses might vacate will consequently become supremely sweet spots.

This is where the Dwyer comes in, along with those 3-year-olds who make Wednesday's edition of it very interesting. Looking east of California, certainly the most important race left this year for 3-year-olds is the Travers on Aug. 25, with the Jim Dandy on July 29 and the Haskell on Aug. 5 as logical springboards to it. The Jim Dandy and Haskell figure to attract some permutation of Street Sense and Curlin, and of course we all hope the Travers gets Street Sense, Curlin, and the history-making filly Rags to Riches. Beyond the Travers, there is the Pennsylvania Derby on Labor Day, which merits mention this year because the purse was boosted to $1 million, and the Super Derby, which, with a purse of $500,000, is still well worth winning.

If one or two of those in the Dwyer run big enough Wednesday to go on to spots like the Jim Dandy, Haskell, or Travers, that would be great. If not, there are at least two other options restricted to 3-year-olds. But there is a longer list of options in races also open to older horses, like the Whitney, the Washington Park Handicap, the Woodward, the Kentucky Cup Classic, the Brooklyn, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. And given the current state of the handicap division, and what the handicap division showed us this past Saturday, many of these races might not be any more difficult to win than even the remaining secondary stakes races for

3-year-olds.

Lava Man was nothing if not all heart winning Saturday's Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup, joining Native Diver as the only horses ever to win that prestigious event three straight years. But this performance was nowhere near what we have seen from Lava Man in the past. He was all out to nail A. P. Xcellent, who is still eligible to his third-level allowance condition. And Big Booster, who was crushed in a $62,500 claiming race in May, was flying at both of them late.

Meanwhile, at Belmont Park, Political Force recorded the first stakes victory of his career in the Grade 1 Suburban Handicap. And he did so despite running sideways in the stretch from apparent fatigue.

Perhaps the best illustration of how the handicap division is ripe for plunder can be found in the fact that both Lava Man and Political Force earned Beyer Speed Figures of only 105 on Saturday. You only need a passing acquaintance with Beyer Figures to know that these races were not strongly run this year. But for proof, going into Saturday the average winning Beyer Figure for the Suburban over the last 17 years was 112.82, and the Gold Cup average was 115.06.

Getting back to the Dwyer, none of the entrants has earned a Beyer of 105 - the winning average Beyer in the Dwyer over the last 16 years is 105.81 - but these are still young horses, and four in particular have license to still become very good. They are Any Given Saturday, Nobiz Like Shobiz, Sightseeing, and First Defence.

I was torn between Any Given Saturday and Street Sense in the Kentucky Derby, and wound up picking Any Given Saturday because he was the bigger price. You know how that turned out. But Any Given Saturday, who came out of the Derby with a foot bruise, was still running fourth in midstretch, and he ran every bit as well as Street Sense did when nosed by that opponent in the Tampa Bay Derby.

Last year, I was president of the Nobiz Like Shobiz fan club. And while he really didn't show the progress you would like to see earlier this year, he still managed to win the Holy Bull and Wood Memorial, beating Sightseeing and Any Given Saturday. The blinkers come off Nobiz Like Shobiz in the Dwyer, and this could be considered a new beginning for him.

Trainer Shug McGaughey has shown incredible restraint with Sightseeing. Despite Sightseeing losing the Wood Memorial by only a half-length, McGaughey passed on the Derby, and despite winning the Peter Pan, Sightseeing did not run in the Belmont. Blinkers are on Wednesday, and it's hard not to get the feeling that McGaughey is now getting very serious with this colt.

First Defence is bred to be as good as any horse, being out of the Grade 1 winner Honest Lady, herself a sibling of the Grade 1 winners Empire Maker, Chester House, and Chiseling. First Defence is coming off a blowout win, his second from as many starts at Belmont, and has worked bullets since.

Indeed, this Dwyer promises to be immensely entertaining. But it also has the potential to be much more than just that.