10/23/2007 11:00PM

Friday card a good appetizer

EmailNEW YORK - Friday's three new Breeders' Cup races are a nice warmup for Saturday's main events and for the horseplayers contemplating those races: Each of Friday's $1 million races is a brainteaser that poses a fundamental handicapping question without a clear answer.

The Filly and Mare Sprint, where the winner is likely to receive the new Eclipse Award for champion filly sprinter, has a pair of very talented favorites in 6-for-8 Dream Rush and 3-for-3 La Traviata, but both 3-year-old fillies will be doing two things for the first time: Facing each other and facing older fillies and mares. Dream Rush, at least, has two Grade 1 victories to her credit, but La Traviata is taking a big class jump after drowning two overmatched fields this summer. They also could hook each other early, joined by the very quick Shaggy Mane, possibly leading to a pace meltdown. At least, that's how I'm going to gamble on it, trying to get Miss Macy Sue (6-1 on the morning line), Baroness Thatcher (12-1), and Maryfield (15-1) to run past the front-runners in the final furlong.

The Juvenile Turf is the most mysterious of the three events. We've never had a matchup of leading American and European grass 2-year-olds before, so it's unclear whether the usual advantage held by the overseas corps in top-class grass races will hold up here. None of Europe's very best juveniles were attracted to the race, but Strike the Deal and Achill Island have been right there in Group 1 or 2 company, while there hasn't even been a graded stakes for American grass 2-year-olds this year. Prussian looks like the best of the Stateside entrants, but it probably makes sense to lean toward Europe until further notice.

There are 25 Grade 1-winning millionaires entered in this year's Breeders' Cup races, but the only one running Friday is in the new Dirt Mile: Discreet Cat, who may be the biggest enigma in all 11 races. Last year he was 5 for 5 and the world's most brilliant dirt miler, firing off Beyer Speed Figures of 116, 115, and 111 that would make him a cinch in this spot. This year, though, he barely raised a gallop in the Dubai World Cup, trailing throughout, then returned from a seven-month layoff with a distant third in the Vosburgh.

Which Discreet Cat will we see in the Dirt Mile? His handlers say he is as good as ever, but that's what they said before his last two starts. Some may forgive his Vosburgh since it followed a long break, but in 2006, he came off a similar layoff to win a Saratoga allowance race by 11 lengths with a 111 Beyer. Maybe it was asking too much for him to win the Vosburgh, but shouldn't he have run better than a 98?

The field's only other Grade 1 winner is Corinthian, who's a bit of a riddle himself. He looked like a Classic contender earlier this year after beating Political Force and Lawyer Ron in the Met Mile, but then was far up the track behind Political Force in the Suburban and Lawyer Ron in the Woodward.

The old Discreet Cat would win this race by daylight, but the 2007 version won't hit the board if he doesn't improve radically. Drawing post 1 in a field where he'll have to sprint early to get away from Gottcha Gold, Wanderin Boy, and High Finance did not do him any favors. So my plan is to use him only defensively in multirace wagers and play against him in intrarace bets, focusing on off-the-pace types such as Xchanger and Lewis Michael, with a little bit of Corinthian and even a dash of Park Avenue Ball.

The three new Cup events are the last three races on a 10-race card at Monmouth on Friday and are directly preceded by a trio of $250,000 stakes that are not officially part of the Cup lineup but could be the models for additional Friday Cup races in future years: The Inside Information is a dirt route at a 1 1/16 miles for 3-year-old fillies, the Epitome is a grass mile for 2-year-old fillies, and the Favorite Trick is a six-furlong sprint for 2-year-olds. All feature entrants who have been running against some of Saturday's Cup entrants recently and are worth following for some last-minute clues about those horses' recent form.

The three $250,000 stakes and the three new $1 million Cup races comprise an intriguing all-stakes Friday pick six, but there's no mandatory payout of the pool the way there will be Saturday. If no one picks six stakes Friday, there will be a carryover into Saturday's pool, which already has a guarantee of $3 million.