10/17/2007 11:00PM

Mohawk Handicap: King-of-the-turf title on the line

EmailELMONT, N.Y. – Saturday’s 29th running of the $150,000 Mohawk Handicap marks a transitional phase in the statebred turf division. Certifiably Crazy, the 2006 Mohawk winner and champion New York-bred turf horse of 2005 and 2006, was retired earlier this year, and several other longtime familiar names are also absent.

Dave, a card-carrying member of the old guard, is still going strong. The 6-year-old gelding became one of six stakes winners at the current meet for trainer Barclay Tagg, when he rallied relentlessly to get up in the last jump of the Ashley T. Cole Handicap against the 3-year-olds Al Basha and Spurred, with Red Zipper and Pa Pa Da close behind in a wild finish.

“I didn’t want to lose all the ground he lost last time,” said Tagg. “There’s not a whole lot you can do about it when you’re in the stands. It looks like he likes to come from behind, and I don’t think he likes to be on the inside. I just think he’s a little hesitant there.”

The Cole’s top five are all back in the Mohawk, as is seventh-place finisher Banrock, in a potential cavalry charge that also includes Pays to Dream, third in the Grade 2 Jamaica two weeks ago; Juror, 2 for 2 in his U.S. career for Godolphin Racing; and open stakes winners Bestowed and Gimme Credit.

The early pace of these turf match-ups has consistently been dominated by Retribution, but the absence of that famous speedball should make for more normal fractions. They are likely to be contested by Red Zipper, who wired the Kingston Handicap first out this year, and Gimme Credit, who won a seven-furlong overnight stakes in 1:20.71 in June and finished two lengths behind Icy Atlantic’s course-record mile in the Grade 3 Red Bank at Monmouth Park.

“It changes the complexion of the race,” said David Donk, who saddles the veteran Pa Pa Da for his 33rd start, along with Spurred and Pays to Dream. “Both 3-year-olds are pretty interesting colts, and there’s a lot more to be heard from them in the future.”

The forecast for a 60 percent chance of showers and scattered severe thunderstorms on Friday could change the look of the Mohawk field, because Pays to Dream’s one poor performance in terms of Beyer Speed Figures came on good turf in a 10-furlong race.

“Initially, I thought it was the distance, but then he came back and ran well in the Saranac [at 1 3/16 miles],” said Donk. “I’ve got him nominated to the Rutgers at Monmouth next Wednesday, so we’ll make that decision Saturday morning.”

Juror is a lightly raced 4-year-old who displayed a strong late run to get through his preliminary conditions. By 1990 Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Royal Academy, Juror need only move up marginally to contend.

“Whoever pulls the best trip is probably going to win,” said Rick Mettee, who oversees Godolphin’s New York division, including Juror. “He’s won off both starts pretty well, and I think he’s improving.”