09/07/2005 11:00PM

Look closely to see contenders with flaws

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Going from a summer at Saratoga to a Belmont fall meet that climaxes with the Breeders' Cup is an embarrassment of riches. Who can complain when the card for day two contains four Grade 1 races with combined purses in excess of $1.5 million?

Questions abound regarding marquee contenders. Let's discuss them.

* Woodward: Do you like Commentator, who has to pick up 10 pounds under the weight-for-age conditions, or Saint Liam, who for the first time since 2003 will be ridden by someone other than Edgar Prado, because the owner (not the trainer) didn't like the ride in the Whitney?

For purposes of comparison, here is a look at the Beyer Speed Figures and my Quirin-style pace and speed figures for the last four Whitneys:

YEARWINNERBEYERLITFIN
2005Commentator123113-111
2004Roses in May114118-113
2003Medaglia d'Oro114111-111
2002Left Bank121114-114

It is difficult to believe Commentator outdid Left Bank (who equaled the track record) and was nine points superior to both Roses in May and Medaglia d'Oro. It is also difficult to accept that Saint Liam ran nine points better than he ever had, and still lost.

By my figures, Saint Liam's best race (115-114) was last year's Woodward. This gives him a possible edge on Commentator, whose only one-turn race beyond seven furlongs was a wet-track mile. Moreover, Commentator was thought by many to be a sprinter-miler type, and just ran his eyeballs out to prove those folks wrong. Sprinter-miler types who stretch out and run huge often regress sharply next out.

Throwing gasoline on the fire, Commentator likes to free-wheel on the lead. How will he deal with the two rabbits that Saint Liam's trainer, Richard Dutrow Jr., has pulled out of his hat?

On the other hand, all is not rosy for Saint Liam regardless of how the pace unfolds. The return in five weeks should be considered a real sticking point. A breakdown of Saint Liam's graded stakes history shows that his best races come with lots of time between starts:

RACEDAYS SINCE LAST RACEFINISH
Whitney49Second (at 3-5)
Stephen Foster105Won
Santa Anita Handicap28Sixth (at 1-1)
Donn71Won
Clark76Won
Woodward161Nosed(by Ghostzapper)
Oaklawn Handicap34Third
New Orleans Handicap42Second

With 10 weeks or more between starts, Saint Liam is 3 for 4, and the loss was arguably his best race. His worst defeat came on four weeks' rest.

* Man o' War: Like the Woodward, the pace scenario of this long-distance turf route will be artificially ramped up by the presence of Better Talk Now's rabbit, Shake the Bank, who figures to complicate matters greatly for King's Drama.

King's Drama is the top-figure horse off his two races this year but has led at the pace call in all four U.S. wins. He is winless in three starts without that lead. Need-to-lead types are always vulnerable when confronted with the gang-up situation of rabbits, especially so on turf.

Better Talk Now figures to take full advantage if he is good enough, but his cause has historically been aided when the turf is something other than firm. Due to the recent stretch of dry weather (just a slight chance of an isolated shower Friday), he is not likely to get his preferred footing. It's a big deal. Better Talk Now has won 5 of 8 graded stakes starts on non-firm turf, but he has come up empty in seven graded stakes on firm ground. Overall, he is 3 for 14 on firm, and 7 for 11 on non-firm.

The horse who can benefit from the whole pace-and-footing scenario is Relaxed Gesture. But at the same time, it is hard to be supremely confident about a horse whose five graded stakes starts on turf have resulted in second-place finishes to five different rivals, both here and abroad.

* Gazelle: This is a treacherous race for one very basic reason. None of the entrants has won at the 1 1/8-mile trip. Three of them have never run the distance on dirt, and the most "accomplished" router is In the Gold, even though figures show she has clearly been best from seven furlongs to a mile this year.

Leave Me Alone comes off a top-figure win in the Test where she was left in control of a moderate pace (Quirin 105-106) after everyone behind her self-destructed. Her main rival for the lead on paper, Maddalena, broke next-to-last, ahead of only In the Gold, who spotted the field several lengths; another on-paper contender, Sense of Style, ran so abysmally that she was immediately retired.

This is Leave Me Alone's third cross-country trip in the last two months, but if you're still thinking about betting the frequent flyer off her sprint form then you should also seriously consider Yolanda B. Too (104-107), whose seven-furlong allowance win at the Spa says she is every bit as good. The question is, did she simply freak in the slop?

* Garden City BC: A Grade 1 with not a single graded stakes winner of any kind! Keep that in mind for future reference.

The Europeans, Luas Line and the recently purchased Asi Siempre, are listed winners; the Irish-bred Insan Mala comes off a perfect-trip score in the restricted Tenski, which barred any previous turf stakes winners.

The filly to beat is My Typhoon, who comes off a terrifically game effort in the Grade 2 Lake Placid, in which she expended considerable energy pressing a fast pace and fell prey to the stalker Naissance Royale, a French import who tracked from third.