11/18/2004 1:00AM

Improving horse right one at Big A


NEW YORK - Even in the era of the Breeders' Cup, Grade 1, $300,000 sprint races are few and far between. So, it is no surprise that Pimlico's Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash is the most important stakes race in the nation Saturday.

Here are my spotlight races, in order of preference:

Red Smith Handicap

This is an eclectic field that includes a couple of horses who may be past their peak but could still win this on memory, Evening Attire and Rochester; a couple of sharp New York-breds in Irish Colonial and Certifiably Crazy; and a few potential up-and-comers. I'll take a shot with an up-and-comer every time. That's why Dreadnaught is the bet.

Dreadnaught has only recently begun to find himself, with a win at this 1 3/8-mile distance two starts back over Sailaway, who came back to be a sharp third in the Knickerbocker Handicap, and a solid effort in the John Henry Stakes most recently. In the John Henry, which was also at this distance, Dreadnaught moved way too early, making a big rush to the lead down the backstretch. In effect, he was in a drive the final five furlongs of the race, so it is to his credit he held on as tough as he did, getting nailed only in the last jumps. Dreadnaught will race without blinkers this time, suggesting he should be more relaxed. That will enable him to wait for a more opportune time to make a winning move.

De Francis Dash

This race came up salty, with four entrants coming out of the Breeders' Cup Sprint, and the first three finishers in this race last year coming back. In other words, this is no race to take a horse who has a counterfeit streak, as many think Clock Stopper has developed. I don't buy into that, at least just yet. I'm giving Clock Stopper another chance.

Over the course of his five-race losing streak, Clock Stopper has encountered several factors that were beyond his control. He ran terrific races finishing second in the Vanderbilt and Forego at Saratoga, it's just that Speightstown and Midas Eyes ran huge races to win. Clock Stopper did well to finish a close third in the Phoenix considering his closing style goes against the grain of the inside speed-favoring nature of the Keeneland main track and the traffic trouble he encountered. And in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, Clock Stopper was hopelessly last of 13 early, and then angled from the rail to the middle of the track in upper stretch. Despite that, he was beaten a little more than three lengths for it all.

On Saturday, Clock Stopper figures to get a contested pace to rally into, and gets the services of Jerry Bailey. No more excuses.

Cardinal Handicap

Shaconage won two Grade 3 stakes races over this course last meet and, in light of where and how she ran in her last three starts, she is the pick to add another here.

In her last three starts, Shaconage was simply overmatched in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf and Beverly D., yet wasn't disgraced in either. And in the WinStar Galaxy, Shaconage found herself on the early lead by default, and she is most effective coming from off the pace. There is other speed this time to do the dirty work for Shaconage, and this is the easiest spot she has been in since at least July.