04/17/2003 12:00AM

Not wise to jump off Wild Cat now

Email

NEW YORK - After two straight Saturdays of major wall-to-wall stakes action that sent the heads of even the most experienced horseplayers into a whirl, this weekend's stakes schedule may seem like a respite. That is, if your idea of a respite is six graded stakes, including a race for 3-year-olds that with each passing year seems to become a more viable stepping-stone to the Kentucky Derby.

That race is, of course, the $325,000 Coolmore Lexington, which tops a stakes doubleheader at Keeneland that also includes the $75,000 Stravinsky Stakes. There is also a stakes doubleheader at Santa Anita consisting of the $250,000 Santa Barbara and the $125,000 San Simeon, and at Pimlico as well, with the $150,000 Federico Tesio and the $125,000 Baltimore Breeders' Cup being the main attractions there.

Aqueduct and Hawthorne each has only one stakes on Saturday, but they are good ones. The $250,000 National Jockey Club Handicap is the headliner at Hawthorne, while the $150,000 Bed o' Roses Breeders' Cup heads the action at Aqueduct.

Here are my three spotlight races:

Lexington

I picked Ministers Wild Cat in a tougher spot two weeks ago in the Santa Anita Derby, but he was scratched on race day because of a foot bruise, and I will certainly stick with him here.

Even though he won twice and finished second twice in his first four starts, Ministers Wild Cat hasn't begun to tap his potential. He also only ran in spots in his last two starts at Golden Gate. That's why Ministers Wild Cat is adding blinkers Saturday. Kentucky Derby favorite Empire Maker added blinkers for similar reasons, and look what it did for him. And, like Empire Maker, Ministers Wild Cat is a prime candidate to show marked improvement with blinkers on.

Still, Ministers Wild Cat wouldn't have to improve all that much to win this race. His second in the El Camino Real Derby most recently is a lot better than it looks on paper. He had an extremely wide trip from an outside post that day, and yet still held second over Ten Most Wanted, who came back to run a huge race winning the Illinois Derby.

Finally, the foot bruise that prevented Ministers Wild Cat is a non-issue now. Neil Drysdale is a great but very conservative trainer, and he would only run Ministers Wild Cat in this spot if the colt was over this problem.

National Jockey Club

Regency Park is a solid play in this spot. He hasn't been worse than second since finishing fifth in his debut eight races ago, and has been that consistent while racing at five different tracks. That means he should have little difficulty adapting to Hawthorne.

Most recently, Regency Park lost a close one in the Flag Down Stakes at Gulfstream on the Florida Derby undercard to Woodmoon, who came back to win his next start at Keeneland, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 105. If Regency Park can improve his Beyer into that neighborhood, and that is entirely possible since he should be set for a peak performance third start off the layoff, then that may be too much for his opponents.

Of equal importance, Regency Park figures to sit a good trip stalking speed that is suspect at the 1 1/8-mile distance. He, on the other hand, is very much at home at this trip.

Santa Barbara

I don't care how slow they go early, any horse who can finish a final eighth of a mile in a nine-furlong race in roughly 10.30 seconds is okay with me. That's what Garden in the Rain did when she finished furiously to be second in the Santa Ana last time out, and that's why she's my selection in this spot.

When she's on her game, Megahertz can finish just as strongly. But, Megahertz, who was the beaten favorite when third in the Santa Ana, and who is the probable favorite again in this race, doesn't seem to be in top form at the moment.

Garden in the Rain, meanwhile, comes into this for a barn that has had a tremendous meet, and off the two best performances of her life, which includes a narrowly beaten second in the Buena Vista two starts back. Moreover, Garden in the Rain romped at this distance over this course last fall.