04/26/2006 11:00PM

No Count Fleets in this Withers

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Saturday's Grade 3 Withers Stakes is the last chance for 3-year-olds to pick up graded-stakes earnings, but it is situated just a week out from the Kentucky Derby, and it doesn't appear that anyone in the field will do a quick turnaround and head to Louisville.

The Withers has been won by such champions as Count Fleet, Dr. Fager, and Housebuster, but times being what they are, the 127th running drew only four runners, so it has been positioned out of the pick six sequence as race 3 on a 10-race program.

Luxembourg and Doc Cheney remain eligible for second-level allowance conditions, while Rob'em Blind and Bernardini have only maiden victories to their credit.

Luxembourg, Bernardini, and Doc Cheney have virtually identical Beyer Speed Figure tops of 90 or 91, but their figure patterns might be regarded quite differently as handicappers try to anticipate what each is capable of running in this spot.

Positive: Luxembourg was nearly 20-1 and finished a distant sixth in his debut at Saratoga late last summer, but evidently the word was out for his return at Gulfstream six months later, when he was bet to 2-1 in an 11-horse field and won clear under a hand ride, with a Beyer of 91. Five weeks later, on the Wood Memorial undercard, he handled a rise in class and a stretchout to a mile, and again won decisively with a 91 while ridden out.

Paired figures by a lightly raced 3-year-old such as Luxembourg are often an indication the horse has the potential to move forward in the near future, and this is especially true when the horse has given the visual impression of winning with something in reserve, and/or has earned the figures under markedly different conditions. Luxembourg fits the bill on both counts.

"He's a class act," said trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. "I'd like to see him sit just off the lead, but since we drew the rail we might not have a choice. We're not going to take back."

Neutral: Bernardini has Grade 1 winners on both sides of his pedigree, and is being trained by Tom Albertrani, whose highly profitable ROI totals in a slew of statistical categories point him out as one of the most consistently underrated trainers in the game. (As a timely reminder, Albertrani won with 11 of 29 starters at Belmont Park's 2005 spring/summer meet, for a win percentage of 37.9, which was tops among all trainers with at least four wins.)

Bernardini comes off a hand-ridden maiden win that earned a 90, but it is very difficult to say what is coming now. The colt had a lung infection after his debut, won his maiden off a two-month break, and contracted a cough soon afterward. He was originally scheduled to meet Luxembourg on April 8, but was scratched because of a foot bruise, and probably would have run in a first-level allowance on Friday had the Withers not come up such a short field.

"His foot was much better the day after the Wood, and actually we didn't miss any training with him," said Albertrani.

Negative: Horses typically improve with experience, so the longer it takes them to equal or surpass the Beyer figure they earned as a first-time starter, the more problematic it becomes. Right now, that is the situation with Doc Cheney, who ran a 91 winning his debut from well off the pace at Belmont last fall, and who has been unable to run back to that figure in four subsequent starts.

Should Doc Cheney rebound and produce a figure in the low 90's, he can be regarded in a more positive light, but until that happens he is a bet-against while running against potential up-and-comers like Luxembourg and Bernardini.

In Saturday's Beaugay Handicap, Angara makes her first start for trainer Bill Mott. She has not been out in six months, has never raced at the 1 1/16-mile distance, and concedes anywhere from 5 to 10 pounds to her rivals.

It might not matter, not if the old adage "class on the grass" holds true. After winning the Grade 3 Bewitch at Keeneland, and finishing second in the Grade 2 Sheepshead Bay (despite being shut off in upper stretch) last spring, Angara campaigned in six straight Grade 1 races - two of them against males - and won the Beverly D. by passing six rivals in the final eighth of a mile.

Trip handicappers will give a long look to Laurafina, who was riding a pattern of rising figures until finishing a tough-trip fifth behind a slow pace last time out at Tampa Bay Downs.

"It was the joke of jokes," said trainer Bobby Barbara. "She was tossing her head on the backstretch. The jockey made her run so fast at the three-eighths pole, she couldn't handle the turn."