04/01/2004 12:00AM

Funny Cide in soft spot, but he's not the one


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - The great thing about horse racing is that you can be really sour about the "state of the game" one week, and next week there's so much going on that you're a kid in a candy store.

Maybe it's the fact that Keeneland is open. Maybe it's the afterglow of watching last Saturday's heavyweight slugfest between Pleasantly Perfect and Medaglia d'Oro. Or maybe it's just the Zoloft they've started slipping into my latte. But whatever it is, suddenly the game is good again and anything is possible!

Let's take a whirlwind national tour of Saturday's stakes potpourri, starting with the action right here in scenic South Ozone Park.

Excelsior Breeders' Cup Handicap

If your Excelsior parimutuel tickets have turned to worthless confetti in recent years, the responsible parties are here and awaiting your snide remarks as they parade to the post.

Yes, the favorites who finished out of the money in the Excelsior's last three runnings, ruining not only your win bets but your exactas and trifectas as well, are back for another go-round. They are Ground Storm, who was sixth as the 5-2 choice in 2001; Evening Attire, fourth at 3-2 in 2002; and Snake Mountain, fourth at 11-10 in last year's renewal.

Oh, another thing: None of them are as fast now as the year when they tanked in this race as the chalk. This means Funny Cide has found his softest-looking graded stakes spot since last year's Preakness, right?

Perhaps, but the problem is that Funny Cide isn't as fast as he once was, either. The overachieving gelding got out-of-his-mind good for about six weeks last spring when he beat Peace Rules in the Derby and Preakness, but he has been no match for that rival ever since.

The interesting stranger is Host, a Chilean import who ran two turf races in a 19-day span at Gulfstream in February, beginning with a one-length loss to the multiple graded stakes winner Del Mar Show. Host's follow-up race, on short rest, resulted in a nine-point Beyer Speed Figure regression that was understandable under the best of circumstances. But Host had an excruciatingly tough trip contesting the lead inside two other rivals, and continued gamely to the wire after turning back multiple challenges.

Host figures to relish the surface switch. His only dirt start in Chile was a romping win in a Group 1. His pace-pressing style is better suited to dirt, and he is by Hussonet, who also sired Wild Spirit.

Apple Blossom Handicap

Wild Spirit won six of 10 starts in Chile at age 3, and she burst onto the U.S. scene in her 4-year-old bow by winning Belmont's Shuvee Handicap at 10-1 in her first start for Bobby Frankel. Rest assured we will never, ever see 10-1 again in this lifetime on Wild Spirit, who makes her first start since winning the Ruffian Handicap "with something left."

Also making her return is defending champ Azeri, who put forth a stirring stretch charge to catch Take Charge Lady in the final strides of last year's Apple Blossom.

Two things point to Wild Spirit. She simply toyed with Take Charge Lady despite her rider losing the whip in the Delaware Handicap. And didn't everyone think Azeri was going to be retired after her debacle at 1-5 in last fall's Lady's Secret? Yet here she is chasing Spain's filly-and-mare earnings record in her first start for trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who at Santa Anita has racked up nearly as many consecutive defeats as Zippy Chippy.

Feel free to single Wild Spirit in your pick-everythings.

Ashland Stakes

This is certainly the top race of the young season for 3-year-old fillies. I am fervently hoping Madcap Escapade catches one of those notoriously speed-favoring tracks at Keeneland and rolls to another big win.

If that happens, I will run, not walk, to the windows and bet a handful of possibilities in Pool 3 of the Kentucky Oaks Future Wager because front-runners in the Oaks are bucking a strong pace profile.

You have to go back to 1995, when Gal in a Ruckus sprang a 34-1 shocker, to find an on-the-pace Oaks winner. Since then, the only winner positioned as close as third in the early going was Blushing K.D., a certified freak of nature who came into the Oaks off a Beyer line of 110-102-103-106.

Otherwise, Oaks winners Pike Place Dancer (1996), Keeper Hill (1998), Silverbulletday (1999), Secret Status (2000), Flute (2001), Farda Amiga (2002), and Bird Town (2003) all rallied from well off the early pace.

San Bernardino

Quick, which 3-year-old turned in the best Beyer in a route last year?

Time's up. It was Dynever's 116 in the Breeders' Cup Classic. He also ran a 114 in the West Virginia Derby.

So my Belmont Stakes pick (and Andy Beyer's too) wasn't that bad, all right?

Dynever never really got the credit he deserved last year, chiefly because he can't stand up in the slop. The track happened to be a sea of slop when he ran a distant fourth in the Belmont Stakes, and also when he was beaten a dozen lengths as the Pennsylvania Derby chalk.

Dynever is back, and prepping for the Pimlico Special, and when he is on his game he is a sight to behold. There was no more impressive horse from a visual standpoint in 2003.

Dynever has a chance to be one of the very top older males as a 4-year-old, but this race is overshadowed by all the other goings-on this weekend. He looks like a single in Saturday's $1 million guaranteed pick six at Santa Anita, provided the track is fast.