11/15/2007 1:00AM

Give nod to Argentina on class

EmailLOUISVILLE, Ky. - At least several times a day at every racetrack in North America, horseplayers are presented with the challenge of determining whether to back the potentially off-form class dropper or the improving horse that has kept lesser company.

It happens in maiden races, claiming races, and in stakes races. And horseplayers need to look no further than Saturday's Cardinal Handicap at Churchill Downs for a yet another example.

The 1 1/8-mile turf race, which unfortunately does not have a lot of depth, seemingly boils down to a matchup between Argentina, a filly who is winless over her last 13 starts but exiting Grade 1 company, and Criminologist, a winner of 4 of her last 5 starts but in softer company.

Although I generally have a fondness for horses that love to win, I'll back Argentina, the 2-1 second choice on the morning line, viewing her suspect recent form as forgivable and her less-than-stellar win record as more a product of the company she has kept than a lack of desire.

If you don't recall that Argentina raced in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf on Oct. 27, you are not alone. Her performance was forgettable, even if she did take the lead on the second of three turns when Simply Perfect blew the turn, taking Precious Kitten and Arravale with her.

When the real running began in the stretch, Argentina quickly retreated, finishing ninth, beaten 13o1/4 lengths by Lahudood.

Although she clearly did not run one of her better races, my feeling is that she was not at her best in the Breeders' Cup. Accustomed to racing two turns, she was too eager in the early stages of the race - as many horses will be when racing a three-turn marathon for the first time. And she also seemed to lack her normal acceleration over the soft course conditions.

Her two prior efforts, a close fifth in the Grade 1 Flower Bowl and a runner-up finish in the Grade 1 Diana, seem more indicative of her ability.

Cutting back in distance to 1 1/8 miles and dropping into a Grade 3, Argentina should return to form. If she is going to get back on a winning track, this is the spot in which to do it.

As for Criminologist, the 8-5 morning-line favorite, she looms a formidable adversary, having just won the Grade 3 Athenia Handicap at Belmont by 4 1/2 lengths. A versatile filly, she handles any type of course condition and seemingly any type of pace. She shouldn't have any excuses. I just question if she is quite as good as Argentina.

As for the others in the eight-horse Cardinal, most appear outclassed. Only Jade Queen appears to be a mild threat to Argentina and Criminologist.

Gouldings Green vs. softer up north

Up in Canada on Saturday, a well-matched field has been entered for the 1 1/16-mile Autumn Stakes at Woodbine, and like so many races over synthetic surfaces, it offers a blend of turf and dirt horses.

My choice is Gouldings Green, a Kentucky-based horse who has been successful in past trips to Woodbine, winning 2 of 3 starts there. In his last trip to Woodbine, he won the Grade 3 Seagram over Polytrack in July.

He has lost two starts since, but those races are better than they appear on paper. Two starts ago in the Turfway Fall Championship, he ran second to Istan, recent winner of the Ack Ack at Churchill Downs by 8o3/4 lengths. And then in his last race Oct. 6, he ran fifth in the Schaefer Mile at Hoosier Park when wide and carrying high weight of 124 pounds.

Returning to Canada to racing over a surface he likes, he is positioned for another stakes victory. He should offer value if he starts at close to his 9-2 odds on the morning line.

Costa Rising looks beatable

An upset could be brewing in the $100,000 Gold Cup at Delta Downs Saturday evening. A race for Louisiana-breds at 1 1/16 miles on dirt, it drew multiple stakes winner Costa Rising, who gained attention this summer by earning Beyer Speed Figures of 115 and 118 for winning a pair of races at Evangeline Downs.

Costa Rising is coming off a sixth-place finish in the Louisiana Breeders' Cup Handicap on turf at Louisiana Downs Sept. 22, but my suspicion is that the betting public will entirely forgive that loss, reasoning that he was not at his best on turf.

At a short price on Costa Rising, I am inclined to take a stand against him. Perhaps the stress of running so fast this summer has resulted in him tailing off form.

Southern Invasion looms a potential upsetter. A winner of 5 of 6 starts, he has blossomed in recent months and might have the talent to run down Costa Rising, particularly if some other horse runs with that one early.