07/26/2006 11:00PM

Lady of Venice the Diana play

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NEW YORK - The first Saturday of the Saratoga meeting provides us with the kind of premier stakes racing one would expect, with the Grade 1 Diana for fillies and mares on the turf, and the Grade 2 Jim Dandy, the local prep for the Travers and Bernardini's first start since his runaway score in the Preakness.

Diana

It is usually a good policy not to put too much emphasis on what trainers have to say about their horses leading up to stakes races, because they almost always say only generically positive things. That is why what trainer Patrick Biancone said for publication to the Racing Form's David Grening recently as to why he elected to run the 3-year-old Lady of Venice against older mares in this race instead of Gorella was so interesting. Biancone implied that he went with Lady of Venice instead of Gorella because the Diana is a Grade 1, and you go with your best horses in Grade 1's. Gorella was awesome winning the Just a Game on Belmont Stakes Day, is probably the best older female turf horse in the country right now, and would have been the favorite in this race. Yet Biancone is saying that Lady of Venice is the superior horse. Wow.

That aside, there are reasons why Lady of Venice is the play here. Even though she did benefit from a hot pace last time out in the Regret Stakes, she was very impressive winning her fourth straight. She was blocked turning for home and bounced around between horses in the stretch, and still won in a blowout under a pull in strong time. Lady of Venice gets Lasix Saturday, and that is a huge move for Biancone. She also figures only to get better facing older opponents who have either already established their ceilings (Angara, Sweet Talker, and My Typhoon), or have disappointed (Argentina), or appear to be regressing (Wend).

Washington Park Handicap

You have to tip your hat to Perfect Drift, who has run well on a national stage since finishing third in the Kentucky Derby four long years ago. And Perfect Drift runs in a race Saturday that he has owned, having won the 2003 and 2005 editions. But Perfect Drift is 7 now, and he might be slowing down. He lost a race last time out in the Stephen Foster he had no business losing. He was primed for a peak performance third start off the layoff, was perfectly set up going from turf to dirt, and had a clear lead in deep stretch, only to be nailed while coming home slowly.

I like Suave, who by virtue of his nose victory over Second of June last time out looks to be over whatever it was that caused him to run so poorly in Florida last winter. Some might argue that Second of June has a license to improve more than Suave on Saturday, since he was coming off a 14-month absence when he narrowly lost to Suave last month, but Suave was also coming off a layoff. Suave returns to a track over which he has run well, and is poised to return to the kind of form he displayed last year when he won the Saratoga Breeders' Cup, was second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Clark Handicap, and finished a good fifth in the Breeders' Cup Classic. And a return to that form would be good enough.

San Clemente Handicap

Between Attima, Secret Scheme, and the overmatched Lake Marina, who really seems to have no choice but to send from her outside post, the pace in this race figures to be strong. So with an eye toward a filly who can sit and pounce, Sol Mi Fa is the bet.

Sol Mi Fa was in a much tougher spot last time out in the American Oaks, and was also too close to the early pace while going 1 1/4-mile, which was probably beyond her range. But with the cut back in distance to one mile, and with ample pace in front, Sol Mi Fa can work out a closing trip similar to the one that she employed to win the Bay Meadows Breeders' Cup Oaks two starts back in her North American debut.

Saturday

Saratoga: Diana
Fillies and mares, 3 and up, 1 1/8 miles, turf

Approximate post: Eastern-5:12 p.m., Central-4:12 p.m., Mountain-3:12 p.m., Pacific-2:12 p.m.; Saratoga Springs, N. Y., forecast: Partly sunny, 89¦

PPHORSELAST 3 BEYERSODDS
1Sabellina94878930-1
2Angara102102929-2
3Argentina9989905-2
4Sweet Talker9796927-2
5Wend8690986-1
6Lady of Venice10189n/a3-1
7My Typhoon9794946-1

Odds by Art Gropper

Arlington Park: Washington Park Handicap
3 and up, 1 3/16 miles

Approximate post: E-5:25 p.m., C-4:25 p.m., M-3:25 p.m., P-2:25 p.m.; Arlington Heights, Il., forecast: Partly cloudy, 95¦

PPHORSELAST 3 BEYERSODDS
1Perfect Drift9994912-1
2Three Hour Nap102102935-1
3Iosilver906811110-1
4O'Connell's89929212-1
5Second of June941081004-1
6Suave9490823-1
7Nolan's Cat9484936-1

Track morning line odds

Del Mar: San Clemente Handicap
Fillies, 3 years old, 1 mile, turf

Approximate post: E-7:05 p.m., C-6:05 p.m., M-5:05 p.m., P-4:05 p.m.; Del Mar, Ca., forecast: Partly cloudy, 79¦

PPHORSELAST 3 BEYERSODDS
1Hill of Grace77657620-1
2Arlene60828110-1
3Sol Mi Fa8584n/a15-1
4Tasha's Delight8283618-1
5Soothsay8782715-1
6Secret Scheme10480757-2
7Musical High7467n/a20-1
8True and True83757820-1
9Attima7986796-5
10Lake Marina69926430-1

Odds by Michael Hammersly