08/13/2008 11:00PM

Grand Couturier a perfect fit


NEW YORK - Saratoga, uncharacteristically absent from the arena of important racing last week, jumps back in Saturday with a Grade 1 stakes doubleheader comprised of the Alabama and the Sword Dancer Invitational on turf. Del Mar also has a Grade 1 turf feature, that being the Del Mar Oaks.

Sword Dancer Invitational

Red Rocks won the best turf race run in this country so far this year when he beat the Horse of the Planet, Curlin, and the venerable Better Talk Now in last month's Man o' War Stakes. And his win was no fluke, as Red Rocks did upset the 2006 Breeders' Cup Turf. But Red Rocks had a perfect trip in the Man o' War, getting first run at a silly speed duel. That, combined with the fact that it was his first start off the plane from Europe, raises the possibility that his form might regress a bit this time around in Saturday's Sword Dancer Invitational at Saratoga.

Despite his finishing a nonthreatening sixth in the Man o' War, I like Grand Couturier. This will be Grand Couturier's third start off a layoff, meaning he should be primed for a peak performance, and I'm starting to suspect that he's been pointing to this race all along. There would be good reason for that. Grand Couturier took to this three-turn event beautifully last year. In the best effort of his career, Grand Couturier ran away from last year's champion turf male, English Channel, in the stretch, showing an affinity for Saratoga turf that could stand him in good stead Saturday.

Gardenia Handicap

This main event of the Ellis Park meeting will be run at a mile out of the chute, conditions at which both Fancy Fusaichi and Windyindy specialize. Three of Fancy Fusaichi's four career victories came in one-mile chute races - at Aqueduct, Gulfstream Park, and Churchill Downs - and all three of Windyindy's career wins came in such races - Arlington, Churchill, and Gulfstream. But while Fancy Fusaichi comes into this off a career-best romp in the Iowa Distaff and Windyindy comes off a loss at short odds in a softer race, I'm going with Windyindy.

Beyond Windyindy merely figuring to be a much more appealing price, a couple of factors suggest she is coming up to a top effort. Although she was a soundly beaten second last time out at Ellis, that was Windyindy's first start in more than two months. In view of trainer Carl Nafzger's excellent numbers with horses making their second starts back off similar layoffs, Windyindy is very likely to show big improvement. Windyindy is stretching out to a mile from a sprint. The last two times she did that, she scored decisively. It's also worth noting that when they met early this year at Gulfstream, Windyindy soundly defeated Fancy Fusaichi.

Del Mar Oaks

When Storm Mesa ran in last month's San Clemente Handicap, she had Beyer Speed Figures that towered over her competition. But I didn't pick her because I thought she would be the favorite, and I didn't want to take a short price on a horse making her first career start on turf. It didn't surprise me that Storm Mesa won, but I was dumbfounded that she did so at almost 8-1.

Storm Mesa can certainly win her sixth straight race Saturday, but I believe she'll be the favorite, and I don't want a favorite trying 1 1/8 miles for the first time in her life.

I'll take Lethal Heat, who I'm guessing will go in this spot instead of Sunday's Solana Beach Handicap, in which she drew a tough outside post. Lethal Heat earned competitive Beyer Figures winning California-bred stakes on Polytrack in her last two starts, and her sixth in the Flawlessly Stakes three starts back isn't nearly as mediocre as it looks on paper. Lethal Heat had some early traffic in that race, was caught wide around both turns, and was compromised by a pace so slow that the first two finishers went around the track one-two.

Yet Lethal Heat still finished well, as shown in the Formulator Web past performances. Using the "display hundredths," "incremental splits," and the "this horse" filters in the pps, you would find that Lethal Heat went her last quarter mile in the Flawlessly in a strong 22.88 seconds.