10/07/2004 12:00AM

Key juvenile stakes are both riddles


ELMONT, N.Y. - Saturday's four-stakes program at Belmont Park should help answer a lot of questions about potential contenders for the Breeders' Cup, and that is especially true for the 2-year-olds in the Frizette and Champagne.


This Grade 1 route for juvenile fillies is a bit of an oddity, in that the field's only stakes winner, Sis City, is also the only entrant not to have won in maiden special weight company. Claimed for $50,000 out of a nose maiden win at Saratoga, Sis City improved 29 Beyer Speed Figure points to wire a $60,000 overnight stakes going two turns at Monmouth Park.

Be that as it may, Sis City will probably be no better than fifth choice behind Balletto and Play With Fire, the two-three finishers in the Matron behind unbeaten Sense of Style, and Ready's Gal and J P Jewel, who were open-lengths winners at Saratoga.

Sis City had a clear early lead in both of her wins, but is going to encounter some major-league pace pressure in this match from J P Jewel, a front-running maiden winner when stretched to seven furlongs last month by trainer Nick Zito. J P Jewel ran her opening half-mile in 45.51 seconds while pressed down the backstretch and into the turn, and then opened up to win by daylight. Significantly, there were four dirt sprints that afternoon, and J P Jewel's half was the fastest - faster than that of even Mighty David, a 5-year-old gelding who wired a $50,000 claiming sprint with a 45.60-second half-mile for his third straight win at Saratoga. Last week, Mighty David, still super sharp, won a $100,000 claiming sprint here.

The pace scenario would seem to favor Balletto, Play With Fire, and Ready's Gal, all of whom share a common characteristic: Each came from nine miles out of it to win her career debut going away in a short sprint. Balletto erased a nine-length deficit; Play With Fire and Ready's Gal were each a dozen lengths behind before closing with a late rush.

Balletto and Play With Fire have run progressively closer to the first-call leaders in their two subsequent starts, culminating with the Matron, in which they were only a length from the lead down the backstretch. That may have had more to do with the Matron's slow opening fractions, however, than any sudden early-speed makeovers for either filly. Consider the fractions of the Matron as compared to the Futurity, which was run a race earlier on the Sept. 19 card:

Futurity - 24.02, 46.88, 1:12.31, 1:38.84

Matron - 24.46, 48.03, 1:12.12, 1:37.67

The fillies went more than a full second slower to the half, but really picked it up thereafter, at least as compared to their male counterparts in the Futurity, as Sense of Style went from last to first around the turn, through a third quarter in 24.09 seconds. Play With Fire loomed boldly outside Sense of Style turning for home and put in a solid run, but was repelled and then lost the place spot in the final yards to Balletto, who had lost two positions around the turn.

Visually, it seemed that Play With Fire had run the more dynamic race.


Another oddity: Futurity winner Park Avenue Ball is one of just two stakes winners in the race, yet he may also be no better than fourth or fifth choice, because the Futurity came up so stunningly slow.

The colts who will attract the most support, and rightfully so, are Afleet Alex and Proud Accolade, neither of whom has been beaten, and Sun King, who comes off a big-figure maiden win over this track.

Afleet Alex won the Sanford with the kind of acceleration that made racewatchers' hair stand up on the backs of their necks, but was all out to get up in the final strides of the Hopeful after weaving through the stretch like a drunken sailor. He has had seven weeks to recover, though, and has continued to train like a genuinely good horse at Delaware Park, including a public one-mile workout capped off with a final quarter in 22 seconds and change.

Proud Accolade and Sun King won arguably the two best maiden races for 2-year-olds in New York this year.

Proud Accolade shrugged off pace pressure to beat a dozen rivals first time out, and returned a month later in a similarly impressive triumph in an entry-level allowance. In the Champagne, he will have the advantage of breaking from the outside post in a matchup that lacks much in the way of early speed, save for last-out maiden winner Silver Train.

Sun King was beaten nine lengths by Silver Train first time out while racing erratically through the stretch on Travers Day, when inside speed appeared to have the advantage in sprint races.

Run back three weeks later, Sun King improved big-time to edge Patriot Act by a half-length, and it was nearly 11 lengths back to the rest. Stepping into the Champagne fresh off a maiden win second time out is a formidable task, but he is in the hands of Zito, who has won four of the Champagne's last six runnings.