12/17/2006 1:00AM

Expect Notional to run much better this time


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - After a couple quiet weeks of top-level stakes action across the country, things heat up in a noticeable way on Saturday. Coast to coast, there are some quality stakes races, including several that offer prime wagering opportunities.

The weekend headliner is the Hollywood Futurity, a Grade 1 race that takes on a new twist this year because it is being contested over Cushion Track. Ten horses have been entered, including Hollywood Prevue winner Belgravia, who is 2 for 2 racing over synthetic surfaces.

Although Belgravia looms an obvious contender, Notional appears to be a better wager. He ran third in the Nov. 18 Hollywood Prevue, beaten three lengths, after a dominant maiden win at Santa Anita on Oct. 21 in which he earned a 105 Beyer Speed Figure, the second highest figure of the year from a 2-year-old behind Street Sense's 108 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Notional regressed second time out, as most young horses do that run big numbers in their career debut.

The stress of having to run so quickly in their first race leaves them vulnerable to bounce, particularly when racing back on less than a month's rest. That seems to be what happened to Notional.

Additionally, he faced the challenge of facing top-level stakes horses for the first time - a daunting task for any horse. Look no further than Daily Racing Form's Formulator software for evidence. In checking the record of Doug O'Neill, Notional's trainer, you will find that O'Neill is 0 for 13 over the last five years with second-time starters racing in graded stakes, although four of those horses did manage to finish second or third.

Even Stevie Wonderboy, last year's champion juvenile, could not handle graded stakes horses in just his second start, running third in the Hollywood Juvenile Championship after a second-place finish in his debut.

Inexperience, not a lack of talent, resulted in Stevie Wonderboy's loss in the Hollywood Juvenile Championship. And perhaps the same might be said of Notional's defeat in the Hollywood Prevue. Now that he is a little experienced, I am betting on Notional running back to the brilliance he showed first out.

The one thing I don't like about Notional is that he will be racing over Cushion Track. His big first-out score came on a traditional dirt track at Santa Anita, and one could make a case that his regression in the Hollywood Prevue was the result of not handling the Cushion Track as well as dirt.

I plan to give Notional the benefit of the doubt. His best race seems good enough to beat Belgravia and his two other principal rivals, Stormello and Principle Secret.

Safari Queen can repeat at Calder

Thousands of miles away from Hollywood Park, Calder Race Course also has some top-level racing on tap, with four stakes on Saturday.

Although the Grade 2 La Prevoyante Handicap drew only six horses, three of the entrants - Safari Queen, Barancella, and Royal Highness - appear so evenly matched that any of the three could end up as the favorite.

My play is Safari Queen, a half-length winner of the Long Island Handicap over Royal Highness at Aqueduct on Nov. 4. Although Royal Highness was cutting into her lead late, it seemed to me that Safari Queen was always in control. She rated beautifully, particularly for a horse trying a marathon distance for the first time, and she used her acceleration to get the jump on her rivals. That kind of turn of foot should serve her well again.

Barancella, who was second in the Grade 1 E.P. Taylor on Oct. 22, and Royal Highness have more extensive graded stakes experience, but neither wins as often as Safari Queen, who is 3 for 7 in the U.S. after going 3 for 4 in Argentina. Barancella, a French import, has a career record of 3 for 14. Royal Highness is 2 for 11.

Gin and Sin merits edge on Polytrack

Gin and Sin is the last of my three stakes plays on Saturday. A winner over Polytrack at Keeneland in October, he rates the edge racing over another Polytrack surface at Turfway Park in the Prairie Bayou Stakes at 1 1/8 miles.

Primarily a turf horse in recent years, he made a successful switch to Polytrack two starts ago, winning a money allowance going seven-eighths of a mile. He then returned to turf, taking another allowance at Churchill Downs, this time by 1 1/2 lengths over Old Forester, a horse that had won the Grade 3 Cliff Hanger at the Meadowlands in his preceding start.

Gin and Sin's main threat is likely to be Summer Book, a horse that typically runs best at 1 1/8 miles.