09/05/2006 11:00PM

This fall could be a hot one

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It may lack the pomp and circumstance of Saratoga, but Belmont Park's 33-day fall meet that begins on Friday will surely not lack for drama and intrigue.

Of the 36 stakes races scheduled here over the next 6 1/2 weeks, 12 of them will be Grade 1 events that will help determine the top East Coast contenders for the 23rd Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships to be held Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs.

Several fascinating showdowns loom this meet, none more tantalizing than Bernardini, the leading 3-year-old in the country, versus Invasor, the East Coat's top older horse, in the $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 7. Since losing his debut, Bernardini has reeled off five consecutive wins, including the Preakness, Jim Dandy, and Travers. Invasor is 8 for 9 lifetime, including North American Grade 1 wins in the Pimlico Special, Suburban, and Whitney.

That Oct. 7 card is also expected to include a clash between top 3-year-old sprinter Henny Hughes and defending Breeders' Cup Sprint champion Silver Train in the $400,000 Vosburgh Stakes. Fleet Indian, the most accomplished older filly or mare in training, is targeting that day's $600,000Beldame, where she could meet leading 3-year-olds Bushfire and/or Pine Island. English Channel is skipping Saturday's Man o' War to target the $600,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic that day, and stablemate Honey Ryder is likely to run in the $600,000 Flower Bowl, rounding out the quintet of Grade 1 events on the day.

Bushfire, a three-time Grade 1 winner, and Pine Island, the Alabama winner, will help get this meet underway in Saturday's $250,000 Gazelle Stakes. The Gazelle shares billing with the $500,000 Man o' War, featuring Grade 1 winners Showing Up, Cacique, Go Deputy, and Relaxed Gesture. The $250,000 Garden City Breeders' Cup for 3-year-old fillies will also be run Saturday.

Take D' Tour, who won the Ogden Phipps and Shuvee handicaps over this track in the spring, returns to Belmont for Sunday's Grade 1 Ruffian, where she is expected to meet Pool Land, who dueled her into defeat in the Go for Wand at Saratoga. Summerly, last year's Kentucky Oaks winner, is also slated to run.

Though horsemen enjoyed purse increases from $1,000 to $7,000 in overnight races at Saratoga, purse levels for this meet return to that of the Belmont spring session.

This meet got off to a bit of an ominous start when there were not enough entries to fill Friday's $100,000 General Douglas MacArthur Handicap for New York-breds. Only three horses were entered, including West Virginia. The track's racing secretary, P.J. Campo, said he would attempt to bring the race back for Sunday if it gets enough entrants.

Thus, the feature on Friday's nine-race card is a third-level allowance race at one mile featuring the promising 3-year-old Latent Heat. Since returning from a shin injury that forced him to miss the spring, Latent Heat has won 2 of 3 allowance races sandwiched around a runner-up finish in the Grade 3 Long Branch Stakes at Monmouth Park.

Latent Heat looked sharp winning an Aug. 11 allowance race at Saratoga by 3 3/4 lengths and earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 107. Trainer Bobby Frankel felt the King's Bishop and the Forego were too close back for Latent Heat and was thrilled to hear that this race filled.

"He ran such a big number the other day, and I was scared he might react to it," Frankel said on why he skipped those Grade 1 races. "He ran a big race."

Latent Heat looks like the main speed in this field and will break from post 5 under Edgar Prado. Trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. will send out the coupled entry of Bank President and Bucharest. Bank President may try to run with Latent Heat, while Bucharest, who will be making his first start since running eighth in the Churchill Downs Handicap on May 6, will try to pick up the pieces.

Frankel said a solid performance by Latent Heat could propel him to the Jerome on Oct. 1, where he would meet the undefeated Discreet Cat.

"Somebody's got to run against him, right?" Frankel said.