06/06/2001 11:00PM

Even second tier's a tough bunch

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ELMONT, N.Y. - As he perused the entries for Saturday's $150,000 Riva Ridge Stakes, trainer Bob Baffert wondered aloud about his choice of races for his 3-year-old Flame Thrower.

"I just can't find an easy spot for him, can I?" Baffert said.

The 17th running of the Riva Ridge, a Grade 2 race run at seven furlongs, has drawn an exceptional field, providing further proof of the depth of this year's 3-year-old crop. The field of eight has combined to win 33 of its 61 starts, including 20 stakes.

Based on his 2-year-old form, Flame Thrower may go off a lukewarm favorite in the Riva Ridge, which goes as race 8 and begins a pick four wager that has a guaranteed minimum pool of $250,000. At 2, Flame Thrower won four of five starts, including three graded stakes, in Southern California. He finished eighth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, a race from which he emerged with a chip in a knee.

Baffert brought him back last month at Pimlico in a contentious Maryland Breeders' Cup Handicap against older horses where he finished second behind Disco Rico.

"We took him back and he was a little bit confused," Baffert said. "When he got to the far turn he didn't want to go to the turn."

Bailey will probably try to keep Flame Thrower off what looks to be a contentious pace in the Riva Ridge. The race is full of front-running types, including Red's Honor and City Zip - who drew the two inside posts - and Put It Back, a winner of four consecutive races, who drew the outside post.

Express Tour is another with speed, but he has also shown the ability to rate sprinting. Express Tour was one of those who chased a record pace in the Kentucky Derby, where he finished eighth, beaten 14 lengths. Express Tour has been training at Belmont for almost a month and shows four workouts here.

"He has been training great since the Kentucky Derby," said Tom Albertrani, the assistant to trainer Saeed bin Suroor.

Burning Roma won the Grade 1 Futurity over this track last September and is coming off a win in the Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico on Preakness Day. He has been a little bit rank in his last two races, but if Rick Wilson is able to settle him down, Burning Roma should be a huge stretch factor.

Touch Tone, a winner of both of his career starts, and Windsor Castle, winner of last year's nine-furlong Remsen Stakes, complete the field.

True North: Men's Exclusive ready to go

Wesley Ward, the trainer of Men's Exclusive, expected his veteran sprinter would need an extended vacation after he finished second in the Dubai Golden Shaheen on March 24. But after returning to Ward's base in California, Men's Exclusive acted not like an 8-year-old, but like a horse half his age. He was raring to go, and Ward always wanted to run Men's Exclusive at Belmont Park, so Saturday's $150,000 True North Handicap came up at just the right time.

"I think he'll like those big, sweeping turns," Ward said.

He also should get a great trip. The six-furlong True North, a Grade 2 race, drew a field of eight, including speedsters Explicit, Here's Zealous, and Hook and Ladder. Men's Exclusive, the 118-pound topweight, and local sprint star Say Florida Sandy figure to get ideal trips behind the expected hot pace.

Men's Exclusive has had a career that has fluctuated as wildly as some dot-com stocks. He was favored in the 1997 Breeders' Cup Sprint at Hollywood Park after a victory in the California Sprint Championship, but did not win another race until last October, when Ward sent Men's Exclusive to a stakes race restricted to California-breds at Fresno, which is better-known for raisins than racing.

"He needed a confidence-booster," Ward said. "Since that time, he's come full circle."

Men's Exclusive has two wins and two seconds in his last four starts, including a runner-up finish to the wickedly fast Caller One in Dubai. He also has had few problems with his feet of late. "It's taken three years to get his feet right," Ward said. "He has thin walls, so we use glue-on shoes."

Ward flew in the noted blacksmith Wes Champagne from California to put new glue-on shoes on Men's Exclusive before the race.

Hook and Ladder comes off a third-place finish in the seven-furlong Carter Handicap at Aqueduct. His trainer, John Kimmel, said the tiring surface that day compromised Hook and Ladder's chances. Say Florida Sandy, who will be making his 72nd start, is 6 for 13 at Belmont. He ran 10 times in six months at Aqueduct this winter, but held his form throughout and most recently finished second in the Carter.

Just a Game: Race loses its Sting

The $175,000-added Just a Game Breeders' Cup field would have been half the size had Perfect Sting run, but without that champion the mile turf race attracted a competitive group of 13 filly and mares.

License Fee, the 118-pound highweight and likely favorite, probably would have stayed home in Kentucky had Perfect Sting showed up, according to trainer Elliott Walden.

"We were on the fence and had a couple of other options," Walden said. "We tried Perfect Sting three times last year and got beat. I figured if [Perfect Sting] wasn't in this race, we looked like one of the favorites."

License Fee, a winner of more than $1 million, has won her last two. In April, the 6-year-old took the Grade 3 Sixty Sails at Sportsman's on the dirt and then captured the Grade 3 Gallorette on the turf at Pimlico.

"If I had 10 like her, my job would be easy," Walden said. "We pick the best spots we can for her and she shows up every time. Last year, I would have thought her ideal distance was a mile, but she has proven she will go farther. She's very versatile and makes a jockey's job easy."

Pat Day rides License Fee, who makes her first start over the Belmont turf from post 6.

If you like License Fee, you have to respect Starine, who finished second in the Gallorette. Starine was making her first start in this country and closed strongly to lose the decision by a half-length for her new owner and trainer, Bobby Frankel.

Also in the Grade 3 are Collect the Cash, last year's Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth Challenge Cup winner who is making her 2001 debut, and Veil of Avalon, a good-looking winner of an allowance race last month.

- additional reporting by Karen Johnson and Jay Privman