11/07/2003 1:00AM

Haggs Castle faces softer rivals


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - In Sunday's $100,000 Cormorant Stakes at Aqueduct, Haggs Castle meets one of the weakest fields he has faced since winning last year's Cormorant by 2 3/4 lengths.

Haggs Castle, who has lost eight consecutive starts since last year's Cormorant, and Quantum Merit are the standouts among eight males entered in the main body of the mile turf race, which is for the progeny of New York stallions. Trial Prep, Beau Tie, Levendis, and Thanasi are entered main-track only.

Haggs Castle, a son of Husband, won last year's Cormorant over a yielding course. The Aqueduct course figures to have plenty of give in it after heavy rain fell for much of the week.

Haggs Castle lacks any early speed and would be aided by a fast pace.

"It always helps when there is a pace for him, and he has never had a pace to close into this year," said Jimmy Jerkens, who trains Haggs Castle for John Confort and Albert Weiss. "The ground might be softer this year and I don't think he will like it too soft. I just hope no one else does either."

Mike Luzzi, Haggs Castle's regular rider, has the mount from the rail.

Winloc's Nelson is the likely pacesetter and figures to be pressed by Quantum Merit.

Quantum Merit is an improved horse since finishing fourth in last year's Cormorant, and is the likely favorite despite being beaten 27 lengths in the Mohawk Handicap on New York Showcase Day on Oct. 18 at Belmont Park. The Mohawk was run over a soft course on the next-to-last weekend of racing at Belmont's fall meet.

Earlier in the meet, Quantum Merit, a son of 1991 Belmont Stakes winner Hansel, won back-to-back races, including a 3 3/4-length victory in the Ashley T. Cole. Del Carroll II, who trains Quantum Merit for Very Un Stable, said the moisture in the course wasn't the biggest stumbling block for Quantum Merit in the Mohawk.

Carroll said jockey Richard Migliore told him the horse bobbled behind on the chewed-up course.

"He has handled courses with give in it before, like he did last year in this race," Carroll said. "He was flying after getting into traffic at the top of the lane."

Migliore rides Quantum Merit, who drew post 4 and is the highweight at 124 pounds.

No White Flags, third in last year's Cormorant, is coming off a runner-up finish in a $35,000 claiming race. The last time he faced restricted company, No White Flags finished sixth in the West Point Handicap at Saratoga in August.

Ryan is Flying, Polish Jewel, Pogolotti Hill, and Luz Lane are the other runners entered to run on the turf.

Trial Prep, a main-track-only entry, hasn't run since finishing last in the 2002 Cormorant in his turf debut. He is an entirely different horse on the dirt, where he won a restricted stakes at a mile on Aqueduct's main track as a 2-year-old and last year's New York Derby at Finger Lakes.