06/14/2005 11:00PM

Judgment Day for Saint Liam

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - His move into the upper echelon of the handicap ranks was swift and decisive. But since last seen by the racing public, Saint Liam has been the subject of speculation about whether he still deserves mention among the elite.

That is what a puzzling loss, followed by a 14-week layoff, will do to slow a rise to stardom. As impressive as Saint Liam might have been in three consecutive races - a terrific second to Ghostzapper, followed by back-to-back wins in the Clark and Donn handicaps - his sixth-place finish in his last start, the March 5 Santa Anita Handicap, seemed to partly undo some of those deeds.

But the three men who have tag-teamed the handling of Saint Liam in the interim - Richard Dutrow Jr., Mark Reid, and Bobby Frankel - all say they expect the 5-year-old horse to return to top form Saturday when he goes off as the highweight and likely favorite under Edgar Prado in the $750,000 at Churchill Downs.

Dutrow, who trained Saint Liam until June 1, when he began serving a 60-day suspension for medications violations in New York, said he is confident Saint Liam will run much better than he did at Santa Anita.

"When I left him, I was under the impression that he was better than ever," said Dutrow, who was en route Wednesday from New York to spend time with his daughter in Maryland. "And by what I'm hearing and what I've read, I don't know why that would've changed. I'm just hoping what everybody else is hoping, that he didn't like that track in California. I hardly ever use that as an excuse, but that's what I'm hoping."

Reid, who for nearly two years has managed the racing stable for Saint Liam's owner, William K. Warren of Tulsa, Okla., said he has been more closely attuned to Saint Liam's progress during the last several weeks, since Warren instructed him to find a trainer for the horse until Dutrow's suspension expires. Reid, who formerly trained a major stable on the East Coast and now works primarily as a high-end bloodstock agent, said he watched Saint Liam train at Aqueduct during Belmont week and when the horse breezed a half-mile in 47.45 seconds Tuesday.

"He has been training very, very well," said Reid. "His work [Tuesday] was very sharp, very crisp. I think he's ready to run a decent one. He's really coming into the race the way you'd want one to come in."

Saint Liam, a winner of six races and more than $1 million, was scheduled to touch down at Louisville International Airport on a charter flight from New York early Thursday afternoon. He was to be accompanied by Badge of Silver, the Frankel-trained 5-year-old who will oppose him under Jerry Bailey in the Foster, and their recently retired stablemate, Ghostzapper. Frankel is scheduled to arrive here Saturday morning.

Clearly, the loss of Ghostzapper has been easier for Frankel to swallow, knowing he has such tremendous talent to fill the void in his shed row.

"I'm a lucky guy, that I can get my hands on these kinds of horses," Frankel said Wednesday from New York. "I'm working for the right people."

Frankel said he has not yet had a chance to become very familiar with Saint Liam but remembers well the Woodward at Belmont last September, when Ghostzapper was all-out to beat Saint Liam by a neck. The finish was the closest for Ghostzapper during an unbeaten season that earned him the 2004 Horse of the Year award.

"Saint Liam and Badge of Silver sort of have the same style," said Frankel, alluding to how both horses tend to race on or very near the lead. "So I'm hoping Prado and Bailey get out there and figure it out. They're two speed horses who can get out there and hopefully slow things down enough to control the race."

In recent years, with the Foster having been won by such major handicap stars as Awesome Again (1998), Victory Gallop (1999), and Street Cry (2002), the race has evolved into a key stop on the handicap trail. Given the untimely defection of Ghostzapper, and the prolonged absences of Rock Hard Ten and Roses in May - both of whom last raced in March - now would seem as good a time as any for Saint Liam to make a big splash in his return to action.

"I think we're all pretty excited to see what he does Saturday," said Reid. "It should be a nice little heat."