07/31/2003 11:00PM

I'm still a Peace Rules guy

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PHOENIX - After Peace Rules won the Louisiana Derby and Blue Grass Stakes his bandwagon was crowded, but by the time he lost the Preakness there were probably two people left who still considered him a better horse than Funny Cide: Bobby Frankel and me.

Peace Rules will show whether we are right or wrong in Sunday's Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth - and the race isn't going to be easy. But they offer $1 million for the nine-furlong race, so it isn't supposed to be easy. Among the hurdles are not only Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide but also the unbeaten Ohio Derby winner Wild and Wicked and the once-beaten Sky Mesa.

Still, the feeling here - the hope really - is that Peace Rules's dull Preakness is an aberration. He had run his guts out in the Derby, for a third straight big effort off a layoff. He was ripe to regress in the Preakness, and the surface at Pimlico that day worked against him. It was sticky, and Peace Rules, despite having post No. 7, somehow ended up on the inside, the worst place on the track. Funny Cide, on the other hand, ran on the best part of the racetrack, stalking a few lanes off the rail. That was not entirely the difference, obviously, as Funny Cide ran a tour de force and would have won that day even if Peace Rules had a head start - but the track condition was one factor that led to Peace Rules's worst finish since he arrived in the Frankel barn.

Frankel and Peace Rules have since regrouped. No Belmont. No Ohio Derby. No American Derby. Frankel bided his time and let Peace Rules come back to him, and judging by Peace Rules's morning workouts, the plan is working. Peace Rules has been dynamite in the morning, acting like the horse who looked so good in the Louisiana Derby and Blue Grass. And, remember, in the Louisiana Derby Peace Rules crushed Funny Cide. Sure, Funny Cide is a better horse today, but who is to say that after the freshening the same can't be said of Peace Rules?

The cutback to 1 1/8 miles in the Haskell figures to suit Peace Rules, and the last time he came off a freshening, he was dominant in the Louisiana Derby.

From a strategy standpoint, Peace Rules's rail draw in the Haskell could work one of two ways. The inside is almost always the place to be at Monmouth Park, and with a clean break Peace Rules may well save ground, press the pace, and pounce turning for home. On the other hand, the rail draw could force Peace Rules to duel along the inside against some quality speed horses, setting the race up for Funny Cide. But Edgar Prado, who will ride Peace Rules, knows that while his horse has speed he doesn't need the lead. And with a clean break, Prado would be in position to shoot to the front if the other speedsters do not chose to go too fast too soon. The hunch here is that the rail draw is good. The race is more a matter of fending off Funny Cide in the last two furlongs. And if I can get 5-2 or so on Peace Rules, I am right next to Frankel, back on the bandwagon.

Congrats in store for McGaughey?

About a month ago, I wrote about a Shug McGaughey-trained son of A. P. Indy named Congrats before the Dwyer at Belmont. Congrats was scratched that day but after a dazzling 5 1/4-length win in nonwinners-of-two-other-than company at Belmont recently, while on Lasix for the first time, Congrats might be ready to take a shot at Empire Maker in Sunday's Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga.

Sure, Empire Maker is tough to beat and there are other toughies in the Jim Dandy, such as Strong Hope and Nacheezmo, who ran one-two in the Dwyer; Tafaseel, the impressive Kiaran McLaughlin trainee; and During, who beat Ten Most Wanted in the Grade 2 Swaps at Hollywood a few weeks ago.

But Congrats is a horse on the rise, and with Empire Maker at 4-5 and the others taking money, too, it makes Congrats a very generous price - possibly in the 10-1 range.

"He's going to fit in with them on Sunday," McGaughey said. "Whether he can beat them, I'm not sure. I know he'll run that far, and he's getting quite a bit of weight from Empire Maker so we thought we'd take a shot and see just where we stand."

Empire Maker is the horse to beat, but he has not raced since the Belmont and he is keying in on the Travers in a few weeks. So the Jim Dandy might be the race to beat him, and Congrats will be a generous price.