06/04/2008 12:00AM

Grade 1 turf stakes top Belmont undercard


ELMONT, N.Y. - True to the over-the-top programs that virtually all racetracks now stage on their biggest days, Belmont Park has packed its Belmont Stakes card with five other graded races, including three other Grade 1 events.

The two turf races - the Just a Game for fillies and mares and the Manhattan for older males - shape up as the deepest betting events of a 13-race Saturday marathon that begins at noon Eastern and lasts until 7:45 p.m.

The five supporting stakes directly precede the Belmont Stakes, which is carded as the 11th race. Together, they combine for an all-stakes pick six (races 6-11).

In reverse order:

* Grade 1, $400,000 Manhattan Handicap (race 10): Even with one of the prospective favorites, Einstein, withheld because of his owners' legal woes, the 107th running of the Manhattan still shapes up as a terrific lead-in to the Belmont.

The 1 1/4-mile turf fixture drew a field of 12, including the stable coupling of $4 million earner Better Talk Now and his rabbit, Shake the Bank. Better Talk Now, winner of the 2007 Manhattan over eventual grass champion English Channel, will be making his first start since returning from a subpar performance in the March 29 Dubai Sheema Classic.

Among a host of contenders are Proudinsky, winner of the Grade 2 Mervin Muniz at Fair Grounds in March for trainer Bobby Frankel; Stream of Gold, winner of the Grade 2 Mac Diarmida in March; Pays to Dream, the 19-1 winner of the Grade 2 Dixie Stakes on the Preakness undercard at Pimlico; Shakis, the beaten favorite in the Dixie; and Dancing Forever, winner of the Grade 2 Elkhorn at Keeneland in April.

* Grade 2, $250,000 Woody Stephens Breeders' Cup Stakes (race 9): A well-matched field of nine 3-year-olds will go seven furlongs in the race formerly known as the Riva Ridge. J Be K, the Bay Shore winner and Withers runner-up, figures as a slight favorite over Ready's Image and Silver Edition.

* Grade 1, $250,000 Acorn Stakes (race 8): Short on numbers, but not on quality, the one-mile Acorn features the return of the 2-year-old filly champion of 2007, Indian Blessing, away since incurring her first defeat in March. She has just four opponents: Zaftig and Game Face, both a winner of a Grade 3 race last out; Golden Doc A, fourth in the Kentucky Oaks; and Dance Gal Dance, a New York-bred with 4 wins from 5 starts.

* Grade 1, $400,000 Just a Game Handicap (race 7): An outstanding field of 10 filly-mare turf specialists was entered in this one-mile turf race, with perhaps Vacare, making her seasonal debut for trainer Christophe Clement, liable to come a slight choice. Vacare has been working steadily since getting time off after a victory last October in the Grade 2 First Lady at Keeneland.

Other major contenders include Criminologist, a winner in 7 of her last 9 starts; Bayou's Lassie, upset winner of the Distaff Turf Mile on the Kentucky Derby undercard; Lady of Venice, an earner of more than $1.1 million; and graded winners Bit of Whimsy, Ventura, Forever Together, and Sharp Susan.

*Grade 2, $250,000 True North Handicap (race 6): Benny the Bull, winner of the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen in late March, will try to get IEAH Stables and trainer Rick Dutrow off to a promising start when he goes postward as the heavy favorite in the six-furlong True North. Benny the Bull, with Edgar Prado to ride, will spot his seven rivals from 4 to 10 pounds while toting high weight of 123.

Five allowances and two maiden-special races round out the rest of the Saturday program.