07/27/2005 11:00PM

Flower Alley ready for best in Jim Dandy

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - With Afleet Alex on the mend after surgery, and the comebacking Bellamy Road tentatively scheduled to use the seven-furlong King's Bishop as his springboard to a fall campaign, the Travers is up for grabs.

Handicappers should get a better line on the "Midsummer Derby" after Saturday's Jim Dandy Stakes, which has attracted six 3-year-olds who are still ambulatory, at least for the time being.

The 1 1/8-mile Jim Dandy carries Grade 2 status, and with a purse of $500,000 it can also be accurately described as the world's richest two-other-than allowance race. All six entrants remain eligible for their second-level condition - even Flower Alley, whose 10-1 upset in a muddy running of the Lane's End at Turfway Park stands as the group's lone graded stakes win.

Several others have run respectably in stakes. Reverberate was clearly second-best in the Peter Pan behind Oratory - who is also on the sport's lengthy disabled list. Andromeda's Hero was no match for Afleet Alex in the Belmont Stakes, but pounded everyone else by nearly seven lengths. King of Jazz was beaten a mere half-length in Woodbine's rich Queen's Plate, which is restricted to Canadian-breds. And finally, Noble Causeway was a late-rallying runner-up in the Florida Derby.

Those in-the-money finishes rank as impressive accomplishments in most other years, but not this one. The class of 2005 is paper-thin. Oratory had nothing more than an entry-level allowance win on his resume when he handled Reverberate in a slow-paced Peter Pan. The horse closest to Andromeda's Hero at the finish of the Belmont, Nolan's Cat, is still a maiden, and the three horses right behind him - Indy Storm, A.P. Arrow, and Chekhov - have racked up a total of exactly one allowance race.

The Jim Dandy is Flower Alley's race to lose. If there is such a thing as running a "good" ninth, Flower Alley's performance in the Kentucky Derby qualifies. Racing with blinkers for the first time, he broke a step slowly, came through along the inside to chase extremely fast early fractions, and was shuffled back on the rail rounding the far turn. Despite the difficult circumstances, Flower Alley was less than four lengths from the lead at the stretch call and was passed by only one rival in the final furlong, beating more than half the field.

Returned after a two-month freshening in the Dwyer, Flower Alley raced four wide pressing the pace, went to the inside through the stretch while battling with Roman Ruler, and dropped a close decision to that three-time Grade 2 winner while seven lengths clear of the rest.

"I think he was a race away from being where he needed to be," said trainer Todd Pletcher, who has won the Jim Dandy's last two runnings. "The horse has trained really well since, and I think he's sitting on a big race."

This is a tellingly confident evaluation from Pletcher. It has been just a bit more than three weeks since the Dwyer, and Pletcher's modus operandi usually runs along the lines of "the more time between races, the better." Flower Alley's Beyer Speed Figure for the Dwyer, 103, is the best last-out figure in the field, so if Pletcher feels he was short of top condition, it bodes well for Flower Alley's chances on Saturday.

Because it is a Saturday at Saratoga, the Jim Dandy is not the only $500,000 stakes on the card. There is also the Grade 1 Diana Handicap, which drew its usual roll call of salty filly-and-mare turf runners.

In Grade 1 turf routes, where class and late speed count most, it is sometimes worth taking a shot against horses with big last-out Beyers, particularly when their preferred style is to set or force the early pace.

Sand Springs is the one with the best last-out Beyer, a 105 for wiring the one-mile Just a Game Handicap, and she seems exceedingly vulnerable because of her running style and a daunting number of challengers capable of explosive stretch runs.

Those who are familiar with Jim Quinn's "Figure Handicapping" know that turf figures measuring finishing ability can be a powerful predictive tool, but can be maddeningly difficult to construct. In post position order, here are my turf figs - again, they are concerned solely with quantifying finishing ability:

Winendynme: 98, 105

Film Maker: 114, 116, 119, 113

Angara: 105, 117, 122

Shadow Cast: 98, 110

Delta Princess: 123, 118, 111

Finery: 105, 102

Que Puntual: 108

Sand Springs: 108, 108

Spotlight: 112, 110

Wonder Again: 110, 108

Simplified for perspective, a figure of 100 is considered par for older classified allowance males.

Looked at in terms of finishing ability, Sand Springs, with a pair of 108's, is about as vulnerable as a top-last-out-Beyer horse can be.

The other nugget is that Wonder Again, the defending Diana champ, is also capable of being outgunned based on her firm-turf finishes - last year's Diana took place on a rain-soaked course.

Besides Wonder Again, the only other Grade 1 winner in the field is Film Maker, and she may be the one to beat after a tough-trip third in the New York Handicap, which featured a very slow early pace.