07/02/2003 11:00PM

Oaks value play an unsung Euro

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NEW YORK - Even in the face of a terrific field for the $500,000 Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park, which is being run for the 117th time, the main theme on Saturday is turf racing.

The headliner among three stakes at Hollywood Park is the $750,000 American Oaks for 3-year-old fillies on the turf. The track's stakes tripleheader also includes the $100,000 Royal Heroine Stakes on the grass.

One of Monmouth Park's most important races, the $750,000 United Nations Handicap on turf, is the main event Saturday, but the Jersey Shore track also has thrown in the $50,000 Lamplighter on turf.

The feature at Churchill Downs is the $250,000 Firecracker Breeders' Cup Handicap on the grass, while the headliner at Arlington Park is the $200,000 Stars and Stripes Breeders' Cup Turf.

It seems the only track offering a lucrative stakes Saturday that is not on turf is Prairie Meadows, which runs the $250,000 Iowa Derby. At least the track has a good excuse. Prairie Meadows does not have a turf course.

Even the supporting feature at Belmont, the $100,000 Poker Handicap, is on the grass.

Fortunately, the weather forecast for all of these places looks pretty good. Here are my three spotlight races.

American Oaks

It is impossible to have a strong opinion on this race, but it is still a great betting race because it is wildly wide open, and it has a favorite you're supposed to try and beat. That favorite is Santa Catarina, who is almost certainly the best horse in the field. However, I could never take a low price on a horse being asked to do something for the first time, which in Santa Catarina's case is trying turf, no matter how fast she may have recently worked on grass.

I'm going with Welcome Millenium, one of five European-raced fillies making their first start in North America. Welcome Millenium has earned three consecutive triple-digit Timeform ratings; she was a close third two starts back in a Group 3 race at Longchamp, the same stakes Dublino exited last year when she finished first in this race (she was subsequently disqualified); and Welcome Millenium was beaten less than three lengths when fourth last time out in the Group 1 French 1000 Guineas, a classic event. Yet, even though Welcome Millenium comes out of the best turf races, a few American fillies figure to be bet over her (Santa Catarina and perhaps Sand Springs and Atlantic Ocean), plus a couple of European shippers (Dimitrova, and maybe Liska) may be bet over her as well. That means the price should be nice.

United Nations

Like everyone else, I'm worried that at age 8 With Anticipation may be over the hill. But, he is still my selection because if he has anything left, he will show it in this spot, and his odds figure to be overlaid enough to make it worth paying the price to find out.

With Anticipation's race last time out in the Manhattan Handicap was ugly, but that was on soft turf, which he has never liked. He will get firm going Saturday while returning to a course he obviously fancies, having won this race last year. With Anticipation should be set for a move forward third start off a layoff. He continues to be confidently spotted by trainer Jonathan Sheppard, and it was only three starts ago that he was such a good second in the Breeders' Cup Turf.

Suburban

With a more patient, more confident ride, Mineshaft would have never lost a photo in the Stephen Foster last time out. That said, Mineshaft is not unbeatable, and since this is his first start at Belmont, which can be a tricky surface for newcomers, I'm picking Volponi.

Volponi's second last time out in the Brooklyn is better than it looks on paper, primarily because he may have been compromised by a track that turned intensely speed-favoring, thanks to a late afternoon storm. Volponi should deliver his best performance third start back off the layoff and re-equipped with the blinkers that he wore in his smashing Breeders' Cup Classic upset last fall.