05/12/2004 11:00PM

Herculated has shot at price

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BALTIMORE - For those who believe there is little value to be had betting on the Preakness, may we suggest taking a hard look at Saturday's Grade 2, $200,000 Argent Dixie Handicap.

A field of 12 was entered for the Dixie, a nine-furlong race run on the turf. Wando, Canada's Triple Crown winner, is the morning-line favorite at 3-1, but he is stuck in the outside post.

While horses from top trainers Bob Baffert (Senor Swinger), Bill Mott (Silver Tree), and Kiaran McLaughlin (Millennium Dragon) figure to take money, the value of the race could be Herculated, trained by Michael Stidham.

, a 4-year-old gelded son of Louis Quatorze, has won 4 of 6 starts and, most recently, finished a strong second behind Mystery Giver in the Grade 2 Mervin Muniz Memorial Handicap, a race in which a nine-furlong turf course record was set at Fair Grounds. That loss ended a three-race winning streak that began after Herculated returned from a layoff in December.

"He had a little bit of an ankle problem as a 3-year-old that we gave him time for, and that's been the difference,'' Stidham said. "He's sounder; he's more mature. He was a little bit more nervous as a 3-year-old.''

Stidham said he has purposely given Herculated time since the Muniz because he feared the horse would bounce off such a big race. Frank Lovato will ride Herculated from post 10.

Herculated should get a good stalking trip behind a number of horses who figure to be forwardly placed. Warleigh, who won the John B. Connally Breeders' Cup Turf at Sam Houston, Millennium Dragon, and Wudantunoit are the likely pacesetters in the field.

Millennium Dragon won the Appleton Handicap in January and was beaten a neck in the off-the-turf Canadian Turf Handicap. After a two-month layoff, Millennium Dragon finished a dull sixth in the Maker's Mark Mile at Keeneland.

"I didn't think he was himself on the day for whatever reason,'' trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. "I don't have that answer. He's trained well since, but he trained well prior to [the Maker's Mark].''

Silver Tree finished eighth as the favorite in the Mervin Muniz after dueling on the lead with Political Attack. Trainer Bill Mott had planned to run him in a race at Churchill Downs before this one, but the race didn't fill. Though he won the Virginia Derby on the lead, Silver Tree can be equally effective from the off pace. Jerry Bailey rides.

Trainer Michael Keogh didn't think Wando was handling the Keeneland dirt surface that well this spring, which is why he ran him on the turf first time out this year. After Wando won an allowance race impressively, Keogh decided to point him for the Dixie.

"I want to get him a graded stakes win on the turf,'' Keogh said.

Senor Swinger comes off a good-looking allowance win at Churchill Downs and gets the services of Pat Day, who has won this race four times since 1991.

Trainer Graham Motion won this race last year with 18-1 shot Dr. Brendler. On Saturday, he sends out Better Talk Now, who is 4 for 6 at the distance and comes off an eighth-place finish on yielding turf at Sam Houston.

Mr. O'Brien is the main local hope, coming off a nine-length win in the Henry Clark Stakes on May 1.