06/09/2003 11:00PM

Jerkens drops in for a win

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ELMONT, N.Y. - After knocking heads against graded stakes runners most of the year, Puzzlement takes a much-needed drop in class to allowance company in Thursday's $58,000 feature at Belmont Park.

But a lack of pace in a compact field could inhibit Puzzlement, a one-run closer whose claim to fame thus far is a second-place finish in the Grade 2 Peter Pan last year.

In three tries in allowance company, Puzzlement has two wins and a head loss to the talented Blue Burner. That loss came in January, after which Puzzlement finished third in both the Donn and Gulfstream Park handicaps. Two poor races in the slop followed, leading trainer Allen Jerkens to find this spot for Puzzlement rather than try Saturday's Brooklyn Handicap.

Jorge Chavez rides Puzzlement, who worked a half-mile in 48.67 seconds on Tuesday at Belmont.

The consistent albeit unspectacular Ground Storm will try to break a four-race losing streak in Thursday's 1 1/16-mile allowance. Ground Storm is only 1 for 11 since taking the 2002 Stymie Handicap over the inner track. During that span, however, he has been worse than third only once.

In his most recent start, Ground Storm finished second to the front-running Abreeze in a fourth-level allowance race at Belmont on May 16. Abreeze returned to win another allowance race two weeks later.

Ground Storm, trained by Bill Mott, figures to be on or near the lead under Javier Castellano.

The horse to catch may be the New York-bred Sherpa Guide, who will be making his first start since finishing fifth in last October's Empire Classic at Belmont. Sherpa Guide was talented enough to defeat open company on two occasions last year and his 4-for-10 record at Belmont includes a victory in the Evan Shipman Stakes for New York-breds last July.

As the low weight at 113 pounds under Jose Santos, Sherpa Guide could try to steal this race on the front end.

"I kind of prefer him to be a little closer than he's been the last couple of times," trainer Tom Bush said. "Jose's done a great job getting him to relax. He's going to be plenty anxious enough off the layoff. Some of his good races he didn't seem to be that far back."

Northern Rock, who will be making his North American debut for the white-hot Kiaran McLaughlin, and My Man Ryan round out the field.