06/05/2003 11:00PM

Give Mineshaft edge over Aldebaran

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PHOENIX - Many of the best handicap horses in the country run next weekend. Trouble is, they won't all be facing each other because the action comes in three different races.

Next Saturday's Grade 1 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs, Grade 2 Brooklyn at Belmont, and Grade 2 Californian at Hollywood give a glimpse of some of game's top males, and may even offer a few wagering opportunities.

Stephen Foster

This may be the most interesting of the trio, with the prospect of two major horses knocking heads. Mineshaft, trained by Neil Howard, made believers of many with a dazzling Pimlico Special win. His prior victories, including a double-digit romp in the Ben Ali at Keeneland, came agains inferior foes and failed to win some over. That changed at Pimlico. On a quagmire of a track, Mineshaft rushed up into contention on the far turn and blasted home, outclassing the opposition. Runner-up Western Pride isn't exactly Medaglia d'Oro, but he's no bum, either, having won the Grade 2 Strub last year at Santa Anita. Other nice horses such as Snake Mountain (sixth), Hero's Tribute (eighth), and Balto Star (ninth) were nowhere to be seen. Mineshaft is the real deal, and besides validating his quality he also showed he doesn't mind mud.

But the 1 1/8-mile Foster is likely to be tougher, due to the presence of Met Mile winner Aldebaran. Trained by Bobby Frankel, Aldebaran got the pace he wanted and the trip he needed in the Met Mile, and just fended off Saarland late. Aldebaran now tries a new distance, but remember he is a half-brother to Breeders' Cup Mile third-place finisher Good Journey, who was top-class at up to 1 1/8 miles.

Aldebaran's style means he gives a head start to some very nice horses, and that figures to happen again Saturday. Can he give a horse like Mineshaft five lengths of a headstart and expect to run him down? That's asking a lot. But at least you know Aldebaran likes it at Churchill. His Churchill Downs Handicap win over this track on the Derby undercard was a thing of beauty.

Edge: Mineshaft.

Brooklyn

Four of New York's best handicap horses - Evening Attire, Harlan's Holiday, Saarland, and Volponi - are scheduled to go in this 1 1/8-mile race, but there are issues with each. Evening Attire hasn't run since last November, when he romped by eight lengths in the Red Smith when the race was washed off the turf. Volponi has run just once since his dazzling win in the BC Classic, finishing second in an allowance race at Belmont May 9. Evening Attire may well need this race. Volponi figures fit, but remember he was 43-1 in the BC Classic for a reason.

Many will worry how Harlan's Holiday will respond to the trip to Dubai for the World Cup and the layoff since. But many horses have run well in Dubai, been freshened, and run well again. Harlan's Holiday's second in the Dubai World Cup, while a defeat, was the best race of his life. He pressed the pace, and while no match for winner Moon Ballad, who may be the best horse in Europe, he kept to his task and fended off such top-class runners as Grandera and Nayef. Prior to that won the Grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream.

Saarland ran well to be second in the Met Mile, making his patented late run, but he sometimes can be compromised by an inadequate pace.

Edge: Harlan's Holiday.

Californian

Milwaukee Brew hasn't run since his dazzling Santa Anita Handicap win over Congaree in March. He will likely use this 1 1/8-mile race as his springboard to next month's Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup. He is trained by Frankel, whose horses often fire big off the bench. One example came on Memorial Day, when Tates Creek won the Grade 1 Gamely off a layoff.

The difference this time is that Milwaukee Brew's rest wasn't a planned vacation - he fell ill after the Big Cap. In a race that could be simply a prep, Milwaukee Brew is vulnerable.

Trainer Richard Mandella may be ready to play spoiler. He is expected to send out Kudos, who quietly keeps cashing big checks while knocking on the door to the big time. He won the Oaklawn Handicap last year, and this year he ran third in the Santa Anita Handicap, then shipped to Oaklawn to defend his title. But he broke poorly that day and wasn't able to catch Medaglia d'Oro, maybe the best handicap horse around. Mandella brought Kudos back to Southern California where he has trained strongly. The price figures in the 7-2 range.

Edge: Kudos.