08/03/2007 12:00AM

Now may be time to beat Curlin

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - Curlin, Hard Spun, and Any Given Saturday are the marquee names for Sunday's Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational, and even a thorough inspection of the six other entrants fails to yield a clue that any of them are worth a strong endorsement.

Still, there may be some value to be had.

Hard Spun is an accomplished, talented horse, and a legitimate threat in the Haskell, but there has to be some fear that he'll get caught up in the expected pace meltdown, with Cable Boy and Stormello likely to show just enough speed to ruin each other's chances. Sure, Hard Spun can rate a little, as he proved when he won the Lane's End, but there's little doubt he's at his best when he's on the lead, and if the fractions are exceptionally quick and he's even close early, he could be vulnerable to the closers. He is the expected second choice in the wagering, and getting him out of the exacta would make it a playable option, especially if Any Given Saturday can key it.

Any Given Saturday's effort in the Dwyer was every bit as good as it looks on paper. He was in hand while stalking the early pace before jockey Garrett Gomez asked him for run, at which point he simply drew away, running away from favorite Nobiz Like Shobiz. True, this Haskell is a much tougher test than the quiz he passed against four rivals in the Grade 2 Dwyer, but off that race, he may well have an edge on this field. The other plus for him is the fact that he ran a superb race the last time he made his second start off the layoff, in the Tampa Bay Derby, when he gave eventual Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense fits in a stretch-long battle to the wire where neither horse would give an inch. The 102 Beyer Speed Figure he earned there was 7 points better than the figure he earned in his first start back, and a career high. If he takes that kind of step forward in the Haskell, he's a very likely winner of the race.

Haskell favorite Curlin hasn't been out since the Belmont, and this does not seem to be the main objective for him. At Thursday's post-position draw, trainer Steve Asmussen went so far as to say the fact that the Breeders' Cup is at Monmouth this year is "the main reason we're running him in the Haskell." In other words, for Curlin, the Haskell is just a step in the right direction. It may be reading a bit too much between the lines, but it appears that Curlin will be working his way up to peak condition, one race at a time, until he gets back here in late October. That's not to say Curlin can't win the Haskell on talent alone, or even at less than 100 percent. But as a handicapper, you're looking at a short-priced classic winner with loftier ambitions down the (turn)pike, making his first start back off a layoff with a trainer trying to get his horse to the Breeders' Cup in top form. Pinning all your parimutuel hopes on him at even money is handicapping heresy.

Leaving him out of the equation altogether, however, is probably just foolish, especially in terms of the $200,000 guaranteed pick four, which culminates with race 13, the Haskell. Curlin, of course, has to be included on this ticket, as he's never run a poor race and he could well be the best horse of his generation. But smaller players will likely single him on their tickets, given the more perplexing early legs of the pick four sequence. That will lead to bigger payoffs on a horse like Any Given Saturday, who may be just as good as the favorite at the moment, yet may offer two or three times as much value in the pick four pools.

Pick four play

Putting together a play for the $200,000 guaranteed pick four is no easy task, given a couple of evenly matched races to start the sequence, but here goes:

The 10th race, the Jersey Derby, features an interesting runner in Buddy's Humor, a colt with only two starts on the turf. But he proved himself with a game second in the Lexington last time out. I'll use him as well as Starvinsky, who is cross-entered at Delaware Park, and Florida shippers Fearless Eagle and Fair Weather Stan.

The 11th is the Lincroft, a statebred stakes won last year by Meadow Blue, who looms very tough right back.

The 12th is the Matchmaker and it's led by La Dolce Vita, a must-use given her Beyer edge. Silver Charades also fits in terms of Beyers. A couple with some upside are Hopes and Dreams and Roshani.

In the Haskell, I'll use both Any Given Saturday and Curlin.

Total ticket cost: $32 for a $1 ticket.