08/30/2006 11:00PM

Flower Alley on his game

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Adam Coglianese / NYRA
Sun King has placed in six Grade 1 races, including the Whitney (above).

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Todd Pletcher wasn't expecting Flower Alley to be at his best when he ran him in the Grade 1 Whitney Handicap on Aug. 5. But he surely wasn't expecting last year's Jim Dandy and Travers winner to finish seventh, nine lengths behind Invasor.

Entering Saturday's Grade 1, $500,000 , Pletcher is expecting Flower Alley to deliver a much better performance. The question handicappers must decipher is whether that's good enough for Flower Alley to beat a deep Woodward field that includes Suave, Sun King, Funny Cide, and Wild Desert.

This year, the New York Racing Association moved the Woodward from Belmont Park to Saratoga and was rewarded with an 11-horse field. The Woodward, run at 1 1/8 miles, shares billing on the 11-race program with a terrific renewal of the Grade 1 Forego Stakes. Both races will be televised live during a one-hour ESPN telecast that begins at 4:30 p.m. Eastern.

Flower Alley had only raced once this year prior to the Whitney, that being a 3 1/4-length victory in the Salvatore Mile at Monmouth Park on June 24. Pletcher felt Flower Alley may have lacked enough seasoning to win the Whitney off one start, and he was proven right. With the Whitney and three workouts under his belt in the interim, Pletcher feels better about his colt's chances.

"I think we put him in a position for him to run as well as he could run," Pletcher said. "It's his third race back off a layoff; he's had three real good works since the Whitney. I think we got him where we need him. It's just a matter of whether he can regain that very top level."

Pletcher said he worked Flower Alley three times, as opposed to two, since the Whitney because the horse has become more laid back in his training than he was as a 3-year-old.

Though rain is forecast for Saturday, an off track wouldn't hinder Flower Alley. He is 2 for 2 on wet surfaces that Pletcher described as terrible. Flower Alley will break from post 6 under John Velazquez.

Track surface could alter the makeup of the Woodward. If the track is wet - and there is a 60 percent chance of showers - Funny Cide, one of the speed horses, is likely to scratch. However, Wanderin Boy, a proven mud lover, becomes dangerous as a speed horse. Wanderin Boy may scratch if the track is dry.

Suave could be the horse to beat. A year ago, trainer Paul McGee shipped Suave from Kentucky to Saratoga, where he recorded a front-running victory in the Saratoga Breeders' Cup Handicap at 1 1/4 miles. He finished second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Clark Handicap and ran fifth, beaten only three lengths, in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Suave may have still been feeling the effects of that campaign when he ran poorly in the Donn and Gulfstream Park handicaps early this winter. After a freshening, Suave has returned with an allowance win at Churchill and a five-length romp in the Grade 2 Washington Park Handicap at Arlington.

"I think some of why he ran so big in that last race was he needed that allowance race," McGee said. "I was scared I was running a short horse and I was looking for him to improve."

Breaking from post 3 under Calvin Borel, Suave could be the horse to catch.

If ever a horse was deserving of a Grade 1 victory, Sun King is that horse. Sun King has finished second or third in six Grade 1 races, including a head loss in the Metropolitan Handicap and a nose loss in the Whitney.

"Either one of those races would have been unbelievable - those were two of the biggest races of the year and he got beat two whiskers," Zito said. "When you think about his record, can you imagine how that looks if he won those two?"

Sun King has never raced on an off track, and has a history of regressing after a big effort.

"You always have to worry about that, but he loves it up here, so that part of it is in his favor," Zito said.

Funny Cide steps back into Grade 1 company for the first time since last year's Suburban Handicap. Breaking from post 10 under Richard Migliore, Funny Cide figures to be at least a pace factor in the Woodward.

Wild Desert returns to the dirt after finishing eighth in the Sword Dancer on turf. Two starts back, he finished second to Invasor in the Suburban.

The field

Woodward Stakes
Purse: $500,000; 1 1/8 miles; Grade 1

PPHORSEJOCKEYODDS
1Wild DesertE. Prado10-1
2Papi ChulloE. Coa20-1
3SuaveC. Borel7-2
4Naughty New YorkerJ. Santos30-1
5Sun KingJ. Leparoux3-1
6Flower AlleyJ. Velazquez5-2
7Second of JuneG. Gomez12-1
8Premium TapK. Desormeaux20-1
9Andromeda's HeroF. Jara15-1
10Funny CideR. Migliore8-1
11Wanderin BoyJ. Castellano15-1

* Odds by Art Gropper
* All starters carry 126 pounds
* Television: Saturday; 4:30 - 5:30 p.m. Eastern; ESPN