08/16/2008 12:00AM

Footing a big Sword Dancer question


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The presence of four Grade 1 winners, the seeming lack of pace, and the uncertain condition of a rain-soaked Saratoga turf course make handicapping Saturday's Grade 1, $500,000 Sword Dancer Invitational a serious challenge.

The race became even more of a puzzle when Red Rocks, the morning-line favorite, was withdrawn after the horse was found to have filling in his left hind ankle late Thursday afternoon. Trainer Mark Hennig had to treat the horse with medication, thus necessitating the scratch. Furthermore, he had some concerns about the condition of Saratoga's turf course.

"I don't want to aggravate it on soft going," Hennig said.

Red Rocks, who won the 2006 Breeders' Cup Turf, was coming off a victory over reigning Horse of the Year Curlin in the Grade 1 Man o' War on July 12 at Belmont. Red Rocks may not be the only scratch from the Sword Dancer. Trainer Bobby Frankel will most likely scratch Champs Elysees if the turf is too soft, and Bob Barbara could scratch Interpatation to wait for next week's Bernard Baruch.

Presious Passion will most likely try to steal the Sword Dancer like he did the United Nations last month at Monmouth Park. He came back in the Grade 3 Oceanport, where he couldn't make the lead, and finished sixth, beaten 3 1/2 lengths. Trainer Mary Hartmann said the Oceanport was used as a prep for the Sword Dancer.

"I got everything I wanted out of the Oceanport,"' said Hartmann, who is starting her first horse at Saratoga. "He didn't run too hard, he came out of it better than he went into it. I would have liked to have won, but he had a terrible trip so what can you do?"

Better Talk Now, Dancing Forever and Grand Couturier are the three other Grade 1 winners in this field. Better Talk Now, who has earned more than $4.1 million, figures to benefit the most from soft ground. He won this race in 2004 over a yielding turf course. He finished third to Red Rocks in the Man o' War over firm ground, but now gets a seven-pound weight shift from that horse for this race.

"I feel as good about him entering this race as I have in any of his races," trainer Graham Motion said.

Dancing Forever, trained by Shug McGaughey, has developed into a top turf marathoner with two wins and a second from his last three starts. He got up in the final strides for a nose victory in the Grade 1 Manhattan on June 7.

"It was a thrill to see him run that way, be able to step up," McGaughey said. "Until then I was just feeling my way along with him to see where he was going to level off. He was dropping back off a mile and a half to a mile and a quarter, and I think he's better going a mile and a half than he is going a mile and a quarter."

On Friday, Dancing Forever blew out three furlongs in 37.88 seconds over the Oklahoma training track.

In 2007, Grand Couturier upset English Channel in what was his third start of the year after running third and then sixth. He enters this year's Sword Dancer off a third in an allowance race and a sixth-place finish in the Man o' War. Alan Garcia rides Grand Couturier for the first time.

Equitable, third in the United Nations, completes the field.