06/05/2008 12:00AM

McLaughlin highly confident in Lady of Venice

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Sitting at his computer in his Belmont Park barn office earlier this week, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin was asked about Lady of Venice, his starter for Saturday's Grade 1, $400,000 Just a Game Stakes.

McLaughlin immediately went to RaceReplays.com to show the video of the filly's third-place finish to Rutherienne in the Grade 2 Jenny Wiley Stakes at Keeneland. While Rutherienne was able to save ground most of the trip, Lady of Venice had to go approximately 10 wide turning for home. That Lady of Venice finished third, beaten only a neck in what was her first race in 4 1/2 months, gives McLaughlin supreme confidence heading into the Just a Game.

"They have us to beat," McLaughlin said.

It's a pretty heady statement considering the depth and quality of the field. Bestowed Gradeo1 status for the first time, the Just a Game, run at one mile on Belmont's outer turf, drew a strong field of fillies and mares. The

10 horses combined have won 19 graded stakes. Lady of Venice, a 5-year-old French-bred, has won 7 of 14 starts including three graded events. She has banked more than $1.1 million, most of that in races run at one mile.

"That's what she wants," McLaughlin said.

Lady of Venice was trained by Patrick Biancone when she came to America in the spring of 2006. She was turned over to McLaughlin by owner Martin Schwartz last fall after Biancone went on a lengthy suspension.

Lady of Venice will break from the rail under Edgar Prado.

Last year on Belmont Stakes Day, Criminologist finished sixth in a restricted stakes. Since then, she has won 5 of 6 starts including a trio of Grade 3 events. Most recently, she won the Beaugay Handicap at Aqueduct by a half-length over next-out stakes winner All Is Vanity.

"I just think she's gotten stronger, she's a lot more consistent - we have more confidence in her," said Shug McGaughey, trainer of Criminologist. "This is the kind of race you want to be in if you're going to get up in the morning. We'll find out if she belongs with these kind or if we need to re-trace our steps.

I think she does belong with these kind."

Bit of Whimsy, winner of 4 of 8 starts including the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth last year, shortens up to one mile for the first time in her career.

Trainer Barclay Tagg was considering running Bit of Whimsy in the 1o3/8-mile Sheepshead Bay last weekend, but he entered her in this shorter race in the hopes that a faster pace would help her. Bit of Whimsy had an excellent work Sunday over the Belmont turf course.

Vacare won the Queen Elizabeth in 2006 and is 6 for 8 overall. She has not run since winning the Grade 2 First Lady Stakes at Keeneland last October.

"I wanted to run her in a race at Belmont 2o1/2 or three weeks ago, but it did not go," trainer Christophe Clement said. "I could have run her in another stakes race before the Just a Game, but I didn't want her to have too strenuous a race before the Just a Game."

Bayou's Lassie upset the Distaff Turf Mile on Derby Day when able to get away with soft early fractions. That same pace compromised Ventura, who finished third.

Sharp Susan, Spenditallbaby, Forever Together, and Them There Eyes, who scratched out of Thursday's Dynamic Lisa Stakes, complete the field.

- additional reporting by Jay Privman