02/09/2006 1:00AM

Host using Appleton as Dubai prep


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Two years ago, trainer Todd Pletcher was hoping to use a couple of grass races at Gulfstream Park as a springboard to the UAE Derby in Dubai for his Chilean-bred Host. Those plans didn't quite work out, but Pletcher will be thinking along the same lines on Saturday when he sends out Host as the highweight and favorite in Gulfstream's Grade 3, $100,000 .

This time, Pletcher's long-range objective for Host is the $5 million Dubai Duty Free at 1 1/8 miles on the turf on March 25.

"If things work out Saturday we'll take him to Dubai," said Pletcher, who trains Host for the Melnyk Racing Stable.

Host was a Group 1 winner on dirt in Chile before being purchased privately and turned over to Pletcher at the end of his 3-year-old campaign in 2003. He has captured 3 of 10 starts in this country, each of those victories coming in graded stakes. Host registered his most important victory in October when he upset the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland. That race came after an eight-month layoff resulting from surgery to remove a chip from his left front ankle.

His Shadwell win earned Host a trip to the Breeders' Cup Mile, where he finished a troubled seventh, only three lengths behind Artie Schiller. He then finished ninth over Aqueduct's main track in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile.

"His most impressive races in Chile were on dirt, so we decided to take a shot in the Cigar Mile and obviously it just didn't work out," said Pletcher. "It was probably the wrong time to do it following the Breeders' Cup."

A field of 10 was drawn for the one-mile Appleton with Happy Hunting entered for dirt only. Happy Hunting has captured his last four starts, all on dirt, including the Grade 3 Aqueduct Handicap on Jan. 21.

If the Appleton goes as scheduled on grass, Host's chief competition figures to come from Saint Stephen or L'Oiseau d'Argent.

Saint Stephen is coming off unlucky trips in his two starts since returning from a six-month vacation. Before that break, he finished sixth in the Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap.

L'Oiseau d'Argent is a two-time stakes winner and has won his only two races over the Gulfstream turf course. He finished last in his only start since capturing the Sussex Handicap at Delaware Park in late July.

Completing the lineup are Network, Old Forester, Old Dodge, Drum Major, Gulch Approval, and Ecclesiastic.