03/05/2009 1:00AM

Graded stakes complicate pick four

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - When the $250,000-guaranteed late pick four began several weeks ago, two consecutive Saturday stakes, the Dearly Precious and Rare Treat, drew short fields and wound up being carded as race 3.

No such positioning was necessary for this Saturday's Toboggan and Gotham - the first graded stakes of the New York season - which came up as exceptionally competitive nine-horse fields and comprise the middle legs of the pick four.

The bet easily out-handled the guarantee the first three weeks, and produced $2 payoffs of $2,373 on Feb. 14, $1,629 on Feb. 21, and $2,141 last week.

Last week's combination consisted of No Questions ($13.80), Top Leader ($58.50), Barrier Reef ($6.40) in the Stymie, and the suspicious dropdown Double Or Nothing ($3.50), who delivered the goods for those who singled him in the anchor leg.

Clearly, the missing link on most tickets was Top Leader, who rallied from last to outkick three horses used in this space: Conquer the Fear at 10-1, Shot Gun Holiday at 12-1, and Buy a Personality, who was hammered to 7-10 in his first start back from a layoff and wound up fourth. In retrospect, Top Leader might just as easily have been included, since he had figures that compared favorably to Conquer the Fear and Shot Gun Holiday. The moral of that sad story is: races with questionable short-priced favorites make good spread races, and are exactly the races where you should cast as wide a net as circumstances allow.

The Toboggan presents a similar situation, because 3-1 morning-line favorite Lucky Island is returning from a layoff. He burst onto the scene with flashy victories in the Bold Ruler and Tom Fool at Belmont's 2008 spring-summer meet, but was ruined at the break of the Forego at odds-on and was then compromised by an abscess in a hind foot beating a total of one horse in the Vosburgh and Gravesend.

If a decision about Lucky Island was all there was to it, the Toboggan would be tough enough. But there also is the question of what to do with Ah Day, a Maryland-based gelding who hasn't been out in just more than seven months but began his campaigns in 2007 and 2008 with wins that earned 110 Beyer Speed Figures. The key may be that both of those 110s came at Laurel, where Ah Day has notched 8 of his 10 wins.

The Toboggan also marks the 6-year-old bow of Grand Champion, who won the Fall Highweight Handicap in 2007, and the stakes debut of Driven by Success, who has been sufficiently impressive winning two New York-bred allowance conditions - with Beyers of 106 and 107 - to be installed as the 7-2 second choice. He has never won without a clear lead, however, and is under the proverbial gun from the inside post, with pressure expected to come from several seasoned rivals.

For my money, the most likely alternatives are Eternal Star and Place Your Bet, who were victimized in their last start by True Quality, who is arguably the top sprinter on the East Coast right now.

The Gotham will be an acid test for Haynesfield and Mr. Fantasy, a couple of well-connected New York-breds who have been beating up on suspect opposition.

Haynesfield began his 3-year-old season winning the Count Fleet and Whirlaway, but produced his best figure in the Damon Runyon when able to run his slowest fractional times.

Mr. Fantasy spots experience to the field in just his third start. He has been brilliant so far, but didn't exactly beat any household named in his maiden and first-level allowance wins.

My keys are a couple of Florida shippers, Masala and Imperial Council.

I'm partial to horses like Masala that are from top-shelf barns and spotted aggressively after a loss. Had his stablemate Take the Points not been in the field in that Jan. 31 allowance, Masala would be exiting a big win and heralded as a big-time contender on the Triple Crown trail. As it was, Masala was off slow behind a 25.09-second first quarter and did quite well to wind up a clear second in a race that featured a fourth quarter in 25.01.

Imperial Council, meanwhile, caught one of the most speed-favoring tracks of the Gulfstream meet, an "important speed bias" that equated to a -199 rating on the Racing Flow figures, and ran right through it to win his sprint comeback. The main question with Imperial Council involves the three-week turnaround, but he has distance breeding on both sides, and we surely have seen only the tip of the iceberg with this Shug McGaughey-trained prospect.