03/07/2002 1:00AM

Ground Storm can and can't do


JAMAICA, N.Y. - Ground Storm will find himself in a familiar position Saturday when he goes off as the favorite in Saturday's $100,000, Grade 3 Stymie Handicap at Aqueduct. His connections and his backers are hoping for anything but a familiar result.

In his 19-race career, Ground Storm has been sent off the favorite in four stakes and has lost every time. Overall, Ground Storm, a 6-year-old son of Summer Squall, is 0 for 6 in stakes races. Why should Saturday be different?

Well, this year's Stymie field is not much tougher than the allowance race fields Ground Storm has been dominating. Of the eight horses entered in the nine-furlong Stymie, only Duckhorn has won a graded stakes.

With two wins and a second-place finish to Evening Attire in the Aqueduct Handicap his last three outs, Ground Storm is in top form and has shown an affinity for the inner track. Finally, with Duckhorn, Judge's Case, Flying Baron, and Top Official in the field, the pace promises to be honest.

Perhaps the only question surrounding Ground Storm is if he can duplicate his last three performances, which have all earned triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures.

"He's shown he's not backing up," said Seth Benzel, who has overseen Ground Storm's development for trainer Bill Mott. "At this point, you want him to have a clean trip; that's the most important thing. As long as [Javier Castellano] keeps him out of trouble and waits to ask him . . . he's showing signs he's going to run close to the same race."

Those electing to play against Ground Storm will have a number of alternatives. Duckhorn was ambitiously placed when entered in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap last month, his first start since last July 21 and first since having surgery to remove an ankle chip. Duckhorn, winner of last year's Grade 2 Hawthorne Gold Cup, figures to try and speed-pop the field under Richard Migliore.

"I'm hoping he'll like the inner track," trainer Patrick Byrne said. "He likes the lead, he's got speed, and I hope he'll be the speed of the speed."

Top Official could be the value play of the Stymie. A 7-year-old gelding, Top Official has recently been effective from just off the pace, and he already owns two wins over Ground Storm. Top Official comes off a troubled trip in the John B. Campbell Handicap at Laurel Park where he was six wide on both turns. In 18 starts since being claimed by trainer Leah Gyarmati, Top Official has never failed to pick up a check.

Threcoinsinfountin enters the race in excellent form and gets in with 109 pounds for top connections Gary Contessa and Lorenzo Lezcano.

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