09/03/2008 11:00PM

Grade 1's add to challenges in pick fours


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Sure is quiet around here, crickets and tumbleweeds, and no waiting at the downtown restaurant of your choice. After a frenetic summer at the Spa, where 359 races in 36 days made the average card 9.97 races long, suddenly there was no racing at all for three straight days; talk about going through withdrawal.

The remnants of Tropical Storm Hanna were forecast to blow into Long Island on Saturday, so the Garden City Stakes was carded early (race 3) at Belmont in hopes of beating the bad weather; the Ruffian is race 9 on the 10-race program, so we have the unusual occurrence of Grade 1 races in both the early and late pick four.

In the early sequence, the Garden City is surrounded by three cheap sprints, two for maidens and the other a claimer for nonwinners of three races, that carry total purses of $88,000. The late sequence, higher in quality, has the Ruffian sandwiched among three races worth a combined $143,000, including a starter handicap with a likely single in Coyoteshighestcall. Third in the recent Claiming Crown Jewel, Coyoteshighestcall is so superior on paper that he concedes seven opponents from 7 to 14 pounds.

Formerly the Rare Perfume on dirt and won by the likes of Personal Ensign and Sky Beauty, the Garden City has been run on turf since 1994 and has been a prime objective for many European 3-year-old fillies. This year, however, the only import is Shaker, who has won just 1 of 9 starts and whose eight siblings to race are a combined 2 for 32.

And while it's taken a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure to win in 10 of the last 14 years, none of the eight turf-meant fillies has reached that level.

The favorite will probably be the IEAH Stable entry of Pure Clan (trained by Bob Holthus) and Ariege (Bobby Frankel), who are the only Grade 1 winners in the field.

But this is not a spot where I'd feel comfortable standing alone with the entry. Pure Clan is 4 for 4 on grass at distances from 5 1/2 furlongs to 10 furlongs, but has no experience with non-firm turf and hasn't run since edging Satan's Circus in the Grade 1 American Oaks at Hollywood Park two months ago. Ariege, while visually impressive winning her recent comeback from knee surgery in an overnight stakes, has yet to bust any stopwatches in five U.S. starts, including wins in slowly run renewals of the Santa Anita Oaks and the Beaumont.

Satan's Circus is a major problem for me, and the main reason I'm more enthused about the late pick four. Off her close finish to Pure Clan first time out in the United States, she's a prime contender. But according to Daily Racing Form handicapper Brad Free's Del Mar diary in Simulcast Weekly, she was "nervous in the paddock and post parade" when a lackluster fourth in the Del Mar Oaks at 8-5, and there's no opportunity to check her demeanor with the race positioned as the second leg of the pick four.

The 1 1/16-mile Ruffian is fascinating, because Indian Blessing not only meets older fillies and mares for the first time but also stretches back out after showing newfound rating ability to win the six-furlong Prioress and the seven-furlong Test with a pair of 110 Beyers.

Bob Baffert took the blinkers off, and that has been one key in getting last year's champion juvenile filly to relax. But equal credit goes to John Velazquez, who, knowing that horses work on the inner portion of the track and thus associate the rail with speed, positioned her out in the middle of the track in both races.

Indian Blessing's main objective this fall is the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, but this one-turn route is well within her scope the way she's going now. Even if she doesn't "switch off" early, she might just spread-eagle the field on the front-end. After all, her run-and-gun second in the one-mile Acorn earned a 104 Beyer, which was fast enough to win all but one running of that race since 1990.

On numbers, her closest rival is Spring Waltz, who will finally get to run after being entered and scratched repeatedly over the summer by Frankel, who has won the Ruffian three times in the last five years.

Spring Waltz found 10 furlongs out of her range in the Delaware Handicap, her first start since winning the Rampart at Gulfstream back in early March.

DRF's Formulator spotlights the Rampart as a hidden key race: third finisher Golden Velvet returned to win the Sixty Sails with a 105 Beyer; fourth finisher Altesse won an overnight stakes at Aqueduct next out; fifth finisher Peach Flambe took a $75,000 stakes next out; Ballado's Thunder, last of seven and beaten 40 lengths, rebounded to win a high-class allowance at Keeneland.