01/11/2007 1:00AM

The lead is key and Great Intentions will get it


NEW YORK - As discussed last week in this space, it's a good handicapping exercise to try and predict which horse will have the lead at the first call, particularly when the surface is a conventional dirt track that tends to favor inside positional speed. Under those circumstances, players who are proficient at determining the early leader often find such horses outperform their "real picks," identified through full-dress handicapping.

In last Saturday's Count Fleet Stakes for 3-year-olds, Pink Viper had finished behind several of his rivals in an allowance race after failing to make the lead. But he was sent aggressively to the front from his inside post in the Count Fleet, and pulled off an 8-1 upset after turning back the favorite, Johannesburg Star. Johannesburg Star was coming off a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure wiring maiden routers, but was caught wide in the Count Fleet and flattened out after making a four-wide run to challenge leaving the far turn.

Of course, the key to landing on Pink Viper, or at least including him in a multi-race exotic play, was figuring out that he would get the lead. That wasn't so easy to envision given a plethora of other apparent speed, which included the obvious Johannesburg Star, and several others as well.

This Saturday, though, it's a lot easier to scan the six fillies and mares entered in the $65,000 Affectionately Handicap at 1 1/16 miles and reach the conclusion that Great Intentions is going to get the early lead.

"The orders will be to be in front," said her trainer, Mike Hushion.

What's more, Great Intentions may actually be a decent price in the short field because four of her five rivals have recently recorded faster Beyers than she has in her last two starts - a last-place finish in the First Flight Handicap on Nov. 4, and a non-threatening fourth in the Interborough Handicap on New Year's Day.

Both of those races are excusable. In the seven-furlong First Flight, she stumbled at the break and rushed up to duel for the lead on a day when outside closers had a demonstrable edge on Aqueduct's main track. First time back from a freshening in the six-furlong Interborough, she caught a sealed inner track and simply spun her wheels, much as she did 366 days earlier as the favorite in the Grade 1 La Brea on sealed wet-fast footing at Santa Anita.

There are two "ifs" with Great Intentions. First, she is apparently much better on a fast track, and the forecast as of late Thursday afternoon called for a chance of showers, so a final decision should await knowledge of up-to-the-minute track conditions. Second, though Great Intentions is a two-time Grade 2 winner, she is obviously in uncharted waters attempting to go two turns for the first time. But there is no better place to attempt a stretchout than Aqueduct's inner dirt, especially in a scenario where she is the dominant early speed, and the probable favorite, Victory Pool, appears vulnerable.

"We've always wanted to try her around two turns," said Hushion. "But she was doing so well in sprint races, we didn't want to change much at that point."

The issue with Victory Pool is spacing between starts: Victory Pool likes a lot of it. Ben Perkins Jr. has been as live as can be with layoff runners at Aqueduct this winter. In addition to Victory Pool, who returned from more than three months on the sidelines to win the restricted Gold Beauty Stakes at nearly 8-1, Perkins last week sent out the layoff sprint winners Wild Jam ($10.80) and It's a Monster ($12) on consecutive days.

Victory Pool earned a Beyer of 87 for the Gold Beauty, which was run exactly four weeks ago, so it may be noteworthy that Victory Pool had reached that approximate level (mid-80's) three times previously, and on each occasion she was well rested. She ran an 84 at the Meadowlands with about seven weeks between starts in November of 2005, an 86 on the inner track with nearly seven weeks of rest last March, and an 88 at Delaware Park off a layoff of nearly three months in early June.

"She's not a real big filly," Perkins said. "She's wiry and athletic."

Whether Victory Pool is resilient enough to maintain form off a relatively quick (for her) return remains to be seen. But even if Victory Pool does hold form, it may be a moot point if Great Intentions rates kindly setting a moderate pace and runs to her best figures as well.