06/14/2006 11:00PM

Foster showdown Brass Hat vs. Buzzards Bay

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Brass Hat, making his first start since the Dubai World Cup in March, is one of several top older horses entered in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap on Saturday at Churchill.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The calendar year isn't quite half over, but the first half of the racing year essentially is. One week after the Triple Crown season came to its conclusion, the season for

deciding championships in virtually every division can now get under way in earnest.

That point will be driven home Saturday at Churchill Downs when several of the top older horses in training convene in the $750,000 , a race that drew such standouts as Brass Hat, Buzzards Bay, Perfect Drift, and Love of Money. Among the short list of leading candidates atop the handicap division, it could be argued that only Lava Man, Flower Alley, and perhaps Invasor are missing from the Foster lineup, which gives the Grade 1 race its customary aura of importance.

The Foster is the focal point of a two-hour ESPN broadcast that begins at 5 p.m. Eastern, and of the NTRA National Pick 4. Both the telecast and the National Pick 4 also will include the Fleur de Lis from Churchill, the Ogden Phipps from Belmont Park, and the Californian from Hollywood Park. The National Pick 4 carries a $1 minimum wager, a $400,000 guaranteed pool, and a 25 percent takeout rate.

Brass Hat, making his first start since finishing second in the $6 million Dubai World Cup on March 25, will share the high weight assignment of 121 pounds with the peaking California invader Buzzards Bay, whose 6 1/2-length romp in the Oaklawn Handicap could make him a slight favorite in a field of 10. Regardless of which horse the fans might lean toward, trainer Buff Bradley likes his: Brass Hat.

"He's really seemed to bounce back to himself," said Bradley, acknowledging his awareness that some horses do not perform to par after returning from Dubai. "He's done a lot of traveling before, and he's always handled it well. Every indication he's given to me is that he's ready to run a big race."

The early pace in the 1 1/8-mile Foster figures to be conceded to Love of Money, whose front-running victories in several races, most notably the 2004 Pennsylvania Derby, have been eye-popping. Trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. entered both Love of Money and Wild Desert but said he most likely will scratch the latter, saying Love of Money may be enough to carry the stable banner.

"My thinking is that if Love of Money runs his race - and he's training extremely well - he's going to be very tough to beat," said Dutrow, whose 2005 Horse of the Year, Saint Liam, won the Foster last year.

Ron Ellis, trainer of Buzzards Bay, said he is glad that more speed isn't in the Foster, since the 4-year-old colt figures to get an excellent trip after breaking from the rail and tracking Love of Money.

Murray Johnson, trainer of 7-year-old Perfect Drift, said he isn't worried about pace scenarios and the like.

"This horse obviously has handled all sorts of different things throughout his career," said Johnson, referring to the 11 wins and $4.3 million bankroll the gelding has amassed from 37 starts. "If he runs his race, he should be part of it, as he usually is."

The rest of the field for the 25th running of the Foster is Seek Gold, West Virginia, Cosmonaut, Wiggins, and M B Sea.

Besides being part of the National Pick 4, the Foster also is part of an all-graded-stakes pick six (races 6-11) at Churchill, as well as a Churchill pick four (races 8-11) that carries a guaranteed pool of $250,000. The Foster is the 10th of 11 races Saturday at Churchill, where numerous special events are on tap, including an autograph session (11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.) featuring six Kentucky Derby-winning jockeys.

The weather forecast for Saturday calls for a high temperature of 91 and virtually no chance of rain. First post is 1:15 p.m. Eastern.