02/27/2004 12:00AM

Five races, five horses, five live plays

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PHOENIX - I'm not thrilled with how my wagering has worked so far this year. It has been feast or famine. January was dreadful. February, on the other hand, put a hop back into my step. Now comes March, and I have no idea if this zigzag pattern is going to continue or if I've steadied the ship. Either way, there are already some dates and names I've jotted down for potential plays for March.

Kilroe Mile: Santa Anita, March 6. This mile turf race routinely brings out the best in the West. This year, however, the shelf is a little bare with many of the big names out for various reasons. That said, I'm anticipating a play on Designed for Luck.

Trained by Vladimir Cerin, Designed for Luck, 7, has been a warrior for some time now, and, despite his name, one of the unluckiest horses around. He showed last year he still had top-class stuff, finishing third in the Kilroe before winning the Live the Dream and the Grade 2 Oak Tree BC Mile. His Breeders' Cup Mile didn't work out so well, then after a layoff returned in the Thunder Road at Santa Anita at a mile on the turf, but had the worst possible post (No. 12) and was wide all the way. He finished a non-factor seventh. But the circumstances were all against him. That may not be the case in this Kilroe, and it's conceivable his odds will be generous after that failure.

Santa Anita Handicap: Santa Anita, March 6. I wrote in this space last week about my interest in Saint Buddy here. I know, on form he's lengths behind Pleasantly Perfect, probably behind Olmodavor and a few others in the race, too. But in the Feb. 7 Strub he got brutalized. He was making a big move on the inside at the quarter pole and basically faced a closed door for the length of the stretch. With even the slightest bit of clear sailing, he might well have won. He doesn't have to beat Pleasantly Perfect to make me happy. At 10-1 or so if he can finish second to the big guy, it's an exacta worth cashing. And who knows? He's eligible to improve as the Big Cap will be only his eighth career start, and it's not as though Pleasantly Perfect hasn't disappointed us before.

Skip Away: Gulfstream Park, March 13. I expected to see Quest trained with the Donn Handicap in mind, but trainer Nick Zito has decided to bide his time. It might pay dividends in the end. Quest really came of age at the end of last year, running second to Mineshaft in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup, then winning the Grade 2 Clark Handicap when original winner Evening Attire was disqualified (I thought it was the right call). He has been working in solid, steady fashion. Could it be he's another horse who finds himself with maturity, a la Mineshaft?

Golden Gate Handicap: Golden Gate Fields, March 14. Anyone who saw King of Happiness power home at Santa Anita on Feb. 14 had to be impressed. This European import flew home to win a mile N2X allowance race in startling fashion. Best of all, he sped the final quarter in under 23 seconds. It was only his second start in the U.S. and being by Spinning World, the 1997 BC Mile winner and European champ, he has a right to have talent. He already had shown it overseas, winning twice and chasing such Grade 1 horses as Rock of Gibraltar, Landseer, Hawk Wing, Ipi Tombe, Paolini, and Trade Fair. It's likely too soon for him to come back in the Kilroe Mile, and this race represents the next middle-distance turf stakes on the calendar in California. And if King of Happiness were to ship somewhere else, look out.

Potrero Grande: Santa Anita, March 28. Bluesthestandard may be the leader among sprinters in the West, but we're not talking Kona Gold or Very Subtle or Phone Trick. And Bluesthestandard may have a new challenger if Unfurl the Flag's seven-furlong effort at Santa Anita on Feb. 21 is the real deal. All Unfurl the Flag did was equal the track record set by the immortal Spectacular Bid. Unfurl the Flag's time of 1:20.11 is equated to Spectacular Bid's 1:20 since races were not timed in hundredths of seconds back then. Unfurl the Flag always had talent, and he might now be showing it, thanks in part to being gelded.

"Mike [Smith] has worked him many times and he keeps telling me, 'This horse has as much talent as any sprinter he's ever ridden,' " trainer David Bernstein said. "It's just that his head works against him. Gelding him obviously was something we had to do. He was getting to where he was going to hurt himself. He certainly has become more consistent. He would run one good race and one bad race, and in the bad races he acted like he'd get mad and not want to do anything and just be an idiot.

"Since we've gelded him, he's got two wins, a second, and one out of the money when he ran down the hill [on turf]. He just didn't care for that."

It is a big step up facing Bluesthestandard, but Bernstein knows how to handle a good horse. (He did a great job with champion The Wicked North.) And there will be those who won't believe the Flag's last race and the Beyer of 110, which means decent odds for those of us who did believe.