03/25/2004 1:00AM

Early bird gets the World Cup


NEW YORK - Don't sleep in Saturday morning if you live in the East, and set your alarm clocks if you live in the West. It will be morning here in the United States when some of the world's best horses compete in Saturday evening's Dubai World Cup program at Nad Al Sheba racecourse in the United Arab Emirates.

The $6 million Dubai World Cup, the richest Thoroughbred race in the world, attracted this country's two best older males in Medaglia d'Oro and Pleasantly Perfect and is, of course, the highlight of the program. But, there are five other Thoroughbred stakes on the card, one worth $1 million and the rest worth $2 million each. There is American representation in all but one of these races (the UAE Derby), with the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen having perhaps a bit more interest for us in this country because it attracted Cajun Beat, winner of the Breeders' Cup Sprint last fall. The Golden Shaheen also lured Alke, who ran a big race when he upset Cajun Beat in the Deputy Minister at Gulfstream last month.

Stateside, the richest race on the schedule is the $250,000 WinStar Sunland Park Oaks, which took a hit with the withdrawal of the very talented filly Yearly Report.

The three graded stakes to be run Saturday are the Grade 2, $150,000 Santa Ana Handicap, which is supported on Santa Anita's card by the $75,000 San Pedro Stakes; Aqueduct's Grade 2, $150,000 Distaff Breeders' Cup; and the Grade 3, $100,000 Berkeley Handicap at Golden Gate Fields.

Here are three stakes I'm focusing on:

Dubai Duty Free

Medaglia d'Oro and Pleasantly Perfect just lay over the rest of the World Cup field. Despite my fears that there may not be much left of them when they return home, if one doesn't win, the other very likely will. In fact, they could easily run one-two, making it a bad betting race.

Likewise, Cajun Beat and Alke look like they have the Golden Shaheen surrounded because, at the risk of sounding provincial, no sprinter from anywhere else in the world can keep up with truly first-rate American sprinters. Cajun Beat fits that category, and Alke is very close to it, and both will be short prices.

There are no such concerns with the Duty Free. It promises to be a terrific betting race, and I like Bright Sky, who looks to be repeating a successful pattern. Just as she did in late 2002, Bright Sky tailed off toward the end of her campaign last year. Then, just as she did at the beginning of 2003, Bright Sky began this year with a second-place finish at Longchamp.

Bright Sky's loss in her 2003 debut was to Falbrav, and her recent second was to no such standout. But last year, she followed that first-out second with a victory, and that victory was over Six Perfections, who was so impressive winning the Breeders' Cup Mile last fall. A little deja vu, one time.

Artax Handicap

Gygistar will probably be the favorite, but there is speed breaking right outside of him, and after his last two efforts, it's fair to wonder if he's the horse he once was. So, I'll go with Pass Rush.

Pass Rush has been away since November, but he has run well fresh in the past, specifically in the Churchill Downs Handicap on the Derby Day undercard last May. In his first start in three months, and despite being checked all over the track, he was a solid second to Aldebaran, who went on to be voted last year's champion sprinter. That race was at Saturday's distance, and I like Pass Rush's outside position.

WinStar Sunland Park Oaks

The scratch of Yearly Report, who would have been 2-5, makes this a much better betting race, and my pick is She's the General.

She's the General may be moving from races restricted to California-breds into open company, but she's also shipping from Santa Anita, where she has won two straight at the one-mile distance while continuing the trend of improving from race to race. She also figures to sit a good trip just off Speedy Falcon, who is suspect off the stretch-out in distance.