09/28/2007 12:00AM

Lawyer Ron: Show me and I'll shut up

EmailPHOENIX - Five big races with major Breeders' Cup implications bookend the country. Four occur at Belmont, one at Oak Tree at Santa Anita. Time to dive in.

Jockey Club Gold Cup: I'm still not on board with Lawyer Ron being an unstoppable force among the handicap ranks. Off just two wins at Saratoga, how does he rate over Lava Man, who not only has two Grade 1 wins himself out West (at two different tracks), but was also second in a Grade 1 turf race to After Market, who many think is the best turfer in the U.S.? I will say if Lawyer Ron can win big away from Saratoga and beat up on someone other than Sun King or Diamond Stripes or Wanderin Boy then I'll shut up and fall in line. But that doesn't figure to be quite so easy here. This time he's running into legitimate top-shelf talent, and we're not playing at Saratoga any more either.

The 3-year-old hotshot Curlin needs to make a statement as well, and trainer Steve Asmussen immediately targeted this race after his modest third in the Grade 1 Haskell. His Haskell wasn't bad; it just wasn't what we've grown accustomed to from this marvelous 3-year-old. But Curlin has had time to regroup and recover further from that brutal Triple Crown run. If the elders are not as hot as many believe, and the 3-year-old crop better than average, it's quite possible he wins here.

Vosburgh: Discreet Cat may be creating all the buzz, but lost in that is the fact this race came up awfully tough. There seems to be the notion Discreet Cat can do anything. I remember last year a panel of experts being asked to pick the winner in a race among Barbaro, Bernardini, and Discreet Cat and they all picked Discreet Cat. That seems a long time ago, doesn't it?

We're talking about a horse who hasn't won in a year, hasn't raced since March, and when he did race was barely able to finish due to an ailment. There have been hiccups on the way to this comeback as well. Can he come back at less than what he was and still beat these? That's dicey.

Fabulous Strike was doing some remarkable things early in the year. Yes, he faltered in the Grade 2 Smile, his first big test, but came out of that race with an electrolyte imbalance. Prior to his Smile dud he was posting Beyers as good as anything Discreet Cat has registered.

Joe Hirsh Turf Classic: There's no getting around it: English Channel is the best horse in here - by a lot. Better Talk Now was forced to miss this race after a training setback, and some other top New York turfers just ran in the Man o' War. English Channel may not be able to handle the best Euros going 12 furlongs, but he faces no such hurdle here. This looks about as easy a way to punch his ticket to Monmouth as stablemate Any Given Saturday had in last week's Brooklyn.

Beldame: Ginger Punch has been all the rage but she's also been the recipient of some ideal trips. Things may not break quite so perfectly for her here. I keep waiting for Indian Vale to bust through and take control of the division. I thought it might be happening in the spring, but her Delaware Handicap run was dull and then she didn't exactly dazzle in the Personal Ensign. Still, my feeling is if they all show up with their "A" game she beats these - but that's a pretty big "if," isn't it?

Norfolk: Salute the Sarge sure isn't getting much love east of Las Vegas. All he's done is win his first three starts and then narrowly lose when a rallying second in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity. But because so many question the effects of the synthetic surfaces out West, his achievements have been pooh-poohed, and he's nary given a mention when the top juvenile names come up.

Well, Salute the Sarge can take charge, out West at least, in Sunday's 1 1/16-mile Norfolk, to be run over Cushion Track. He's already shown ample courage and guts. Now he needs to show he can take it beyond a sprint. And if he does he'll have done it at all three major Southern California tracks, on different synthetic surfaces, which is more than can be said for most of his more ballyhooed colleagues.

It isn't going to be easy, though. Richard Mandella sends Dixie Chatter. An impressive maiden winner on Hollywood's Cushion Track July 7, he missed the Grade 2 Best Pal but came back in the Futurity. He made a strong run to the lead into the lane, looking as if it were the winning move. But he flattened out and finished fifth, looking like a horse who needed the race. Well, he's had his race, and this is the meet where the big Mandella juveniles have stepped forward.