01/23/2003 12:00AM

Longshot parade to keep marching

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Upsets have been the rule in stakes races since the Gulfstream Park meet began on Jan. 3. The winners of the eight stakes decided here this month have paid $25.80, $60.60, $25.20, $30.20, $11.40, $15.60, $56.80, and $61.60. Even more incredible is that only one of the eight favorites in those races even hit the board.

So it's hard to imagine that trend will change on Saturday. Three of the four Sunshine Millions races at Gulfstream sport full and very competitive fields, including the $1 million Classic, which may be the most wide-open race on the card.

George Bernet, a veteran handicapper who works for the Gulfstream Park publicity department, believes one reason for the large payoffs is that the betting public is simply making false favorites in many of the stakes.

"The public tends to bet horses on past reputations or on big-name trainers with lofty reputations in stakes races, which allows some legitimate contenders to go off at higher odds than they really should," said Bernet.

The public is not likely to change its betting habits for Sunshine Millions Day, which may result in some juicy overlays in the afternoon's four main events.

Even Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, had trouble settling on a favorite for the Classic. He finally went for Best of the Rest over Continental Red, his morning line prices of 7-2 and 4-1 on the two choices an indication of just how evenly matched the field is.

Of course, that means some pretty good horses are going to get away at some very attractive prices, including Sir Bear, a multiple Grade 1 winner; the always competitive Free of Love; and Grey Memo, a late-striding California invader.

Sir Bear will surely be the sentimental favorite to win the Classic. Now 10, Sir Bear tailed off in form dramatically during the second half of the 2002 campaign. But Gulfstream has always been the old man's favorite track, and pulling off upsets here has been old hat for him. He won both the 2002 Skip Away Handicap and the 2001 Gulfstream Park Handicap at 9-1. And despite the lofty Classic purse of $1 million, the Classic field will probably be the weakest Sir Bear has competed in here in several winters.

Free of Love also returns to a track where he has performed well in the past. Last winter he was beaten less than six lengths in the Grade 1 Donn and less than four in the Grade 3 Creme Fraiche Handicap. He owns Beyer Speed Figures that would make him competitive with this group on his best effort, such as his third-place finish in the 2001 Discovery Handicap behind Evening Attire and Street Cry at the Classic's nine-furlong distance. Free of Love is also training up a storm at Palm Meadows.

Nine furlongs may not be Grey Memo's most effective distance, but if the pace gets too hot and he's on top of his game, Grey Memo, a stretch-running roan, could run them all down. His rider, Jose Santos, knows something about upsets, having pulled off the biggest of them all last season, winning the Breeders' Cup Classic aboard Volponi at 60-1.

The $250,000 Filly and Mare Sprint looks to be set up perfectly for the in-form favorite, Madame Pietra, or the suddenly improved Fly Me Crazy. But price-shoppers might want to take a good look at Wish It Were and Warren's Whistle.

Wish It Were will be making the third start of her form cycle and should be ready to repeat or better her career-best performance, which resulted in a neck victory over Haunted Lass in Monmouth Park's Dearly Precious Stakes last summer. In her last start, Wish It Were finished a troubled second in Calder's Auld Lang Syne Stakes to Slews Final Answer, a very promising Bill Mott-trained filly who would likely be odds-on to win the Filly and Mare Sprint had she been eligible for the race.

Warren's Whistle will make just her third start for trainer Dallas Stewart and will be turning back off a two-turn outing at Fair Grounds. A late-running threat in a field loaded with speed, Warren's Whistle also owns a victory over Madame Pietra at Del Mar in August and might prove a perfect fit for the patience of jockey Pat Day.

Cellars Shiraz will be the likely favorite in the Filly and Mare Turf. But she may be overbet and has yet to beat older fillies and mares over any surface.

With that in mind, stretch-runner Stay Forever and pace-presser Libretto look like worthy win candidates and should offer some value both in straight and pick four wagers.

Stay Forever suffered her only setback last season against males in Calder's Bonnie Heath Turf Handicap and likely could have won that race with a clean trip. Libretto comes off her career-best effort when she was narrowly overtaken by trainer Christophe Clement's odds-on Strawberry Blonde in her 2002 finale.

Pick four: 3x4x1x2

For those inclined to try the pick four and use a mix of longshots and logical choices, a bet might be structured using Wish It Were, Warren's Whistle, and Madame Pietra in the Filly and Mare Sprint; Sir Bear, Free of Love, Grey Memo, and The Judge Sez Who in the Classic; Supah Blitz as a single in the Dash; and Stay Forever and Libretto in the Filly and Mare Turf.