09/03/2003 11:00PM

Fresh and ready for Woodward

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Mineshaft returns from a two-month layoff in his first step toward the Breeders' Cup Classic.

ELMONT, N.Y. - When owner Will Farish and trainer Neil Howard decided to give Mineshaft a brief freshening this summer, it may have been more for them than their horse.

"It was bothering Mr. Farish and I more than it was bothering him if he needed a break or not, which is why we skipped the Whitney and decided to be more judicious by him,'' Howard said.

His mini-vacation over, Mineshaft starts back down the road to the Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday when he takes on four rivals in the Grade 1, $500,000 Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park.

The Woodward is one of three Grade 1 races on Saturday's 10-race card. Also on the docket are the $500,000 Man o' War Stakes for 3-year-olds and up at 11 furlongs on turf and the $250,000 Gazelle Handicap for 3-year-old fillies at nine furlongs on dirt.

The Woodward will be Mineshaft's first start since July 5, when he won the Suburban Handicap by 2 1/4 lengths over last year's Breeders' Cup Classic winner, Volponi. It was Mineshaft's fifth victory in seven starts this year and second Grade 1 win, helping to propel him atop the handicap division rankings.

The Suburban was also Mineshaft's ninth consecutive month with one race. Not wanting to find out at the eighth pole of the Oct. 25 Classic at Santa Anita that Mineshaft needed a break, Farish and Howard decided to skip the Grade 1 Whitney on Aug. 2 and point Mineshaft to a fall campaign that included the Woodward and the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup here on Sept. 27.

"There are two schools of thought on that,'' Howard said. "When a horse is doing well, run. On the other hand, it's not always good to wait for the horse to tail off. It's unusual for a horse to go seven hard races and not to get to the bottom of him a little bit. Even though he's a big, strong horse with a lot of constitution to him he's still a horse, he's not Superman.''

It's not like Mineshaft did nothing for two months. After he was given the rest of July off following the Suburban, Mineshaft began breezing on Aug. 1 and has seven recorded breezes leading up to this race.

Mineshaft, who will break from post 2 under Robby Albarado, should get a similar trip in the Woodward as he got in the Suburban, when he sat off the pace-setting Judge's Case for almost seven furlongs before taking over around the turn.

Saturday, Mineshaft figures to stalk Northern Rock, a speed horse from the Kiaran McLaughlin barn. Northern Rock was six-length winner of a classified allowance race here in June, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 113. He set a contested pace in the Whitney before finishing fifth, beaten only three lengths.

The wild card in the field is Hold That Tiger, a half-brother to Belmont Stakes winner Editor's Note who finished a hard-charging third in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Hold That Tiger has run only three times in Europe this year, managing a fourth in the St. James's Palace at Royal Ascot in June before finishing ninth in the Group 1 Coral Eclipse at Sandown in July.

"He didn't run as bad as the form will look,'' O'Brien said of the Eclipse. "He was coming with a nice long, gradual run. He got into a few bits of trouble on the bend. Mick [Kinane] came back and said he was happy with the run. We came back with a break, freshened him up, and he's probably been working better now than he's worked all year.''

Edgar Prado rides Hold That Tiger from post 5. As a 3-year-old, Hold That Tiger gets four pounds from his four elders, who carry 126.

Thirty years ago, trainer Allen Jerkens won the Woodward with 16-1 shot Prove Out, who knocked off 1-5 favorite Secretariat, helping build Jerkens's reputation as "The Giant Killer.''

Saturday, Jerkens will try to knock off Mineshaft with Puzzlement, who is coming off a victory in the Saratoga Breeders' Cup Handicap on Aug. 16. While Puzzlement is in excellent form, he is 0 for 5 at Belmont, where the nine-furlong races are run around one turn.

"I hope he doesn't start running halfway down the backstretch because then he won't finish,'' Jerkens said. "It's the type of race where a jockey has to use his own judgment. A mile and an eighth is as far as they go on any track without hitting a turn.''

Thompson Rouge, who was disqualified from a second-level allowance win on Aug. 9 at Saratoga in his first start on dirt, completes the field. He has Hall of Fame connections in trainer Bill Mott and jockey Jerry Bailey.