06/16/2004 11:00PM

Offlee Wild's pattern awfully tempting


ELMONT, N.Y. - If graded stakes are supposed to be the most straightforward races to handicap, it sure hasn't seemed that way the last couple of weeks. Tote boards across the nation have been lit up like Christmas trees by the likes of Birdstone ($74) in the Belmont, Colonial Colony ($127.20) in Churchill's Stephen Foster, and turf upsetters Lovely Rafaela ($34.40) and Sabiango ($28.80) out at Hollywood Park.

So when the entries were drawn for this weekend's richest race, the $500,000 Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs, who could blame a contrarian whose first inclination was to look for a possible upsetter?

The Mass Cap may be a good spot to take such an approach, because Funny Cide and Evening Attire figure to attract tons of support, and both geldings are eminently beatable these days.

Funny Cide has not won a fast-track race at a mile or over since last year's Kentucky Derby. Since being disqualified in the Clark Handicap last fall, Evening Attire has lost six straight, five of those losses at 7-5 odds or lower.

In terms of Beyer Figures, the obvious alternatives are The Lady's Groom and Gygistar.

The Lady's Groom is coming off back-to-back 109's, figures that seem legitimate. The first one was a win in an ungraded 1 1/8-mile stakes that went in 1:48.23, which was 2.27 seconds faster than the Federico Tesio for 3-year-olds a race later. The second 109 was a runner-up finish behind Seattle Fitz, who came back to win last Saturday's Brooklyn Handicap in record-equaling time.

But skeptics may view The Lady's Groom either as a bounce candidate coming off paired lifetime tops, or simply as a horse for the course who freaked at Pimlico. And pace projectionists may fear that The Lady's Groom likes to set the pace, which means he may have a tough time with Rogue Agent, a one-dimensional speed horse with enough quality to have led Seattle Fitz to the stretch call of a Grade 3 earlier this year.

Gygistar matches up with the other contenders after going 107-110-108 in the Carter, Westchester, and Met Mile this spring, but whether he can maintain that level stretching to two turns at this stage of his career is a worrisome question.

Offlee Wild, trained by Richard Dutrow Jr., is a horse likely to be overlooked by the number-crunching crowd. That is just fine with trainer-pattern players, who will marvel at how Offlee Wild's past performances are so remarkably similar to those of Saint Liam shortly before the latter ran Peace Rules to a photo finish earlier this year in the New Orleans Handicap.

A brief history: Saint Liam showed enough quality to run a 100 Beyer at Churchill last June and run second in the Iowa Derby a month later. But he was still eligible for his second-level allowance condition when he returned from an August-to-December layoff along with a trainer change. He won his Dutrow debut by four lengths, Beyer 94, then leaped to a 108 winning an optional claimer at Gulfstream, followed by a peak of 113 in the New Orleans Handicap.

Several aspects of Offlee Wild's profile look like d?j? vu all over again. He was talented enough as a 3-year-old to win the Holy Bull with a 99 Beyer while still eligible for a first-level allowance. It took him nearly 16 months to get back to that level, and it just happened to be his first start off a layoff and a trainer change to Dutrow.

If the parallels between the 4-year-old stablemates continue, bettors who look for trainer-pattern matches may feel that Offlee Wild is about to make another forward move. The fact that he is so aggressively spotted in the Mass Cap is a hint that Dutrow shares their enthusiasm.

Azeri gets back to her game

Few would argue that during the past quarter-century or so, the four trainers who have developed the household names among the distaff set are D. Wayne Lukas, Shug McGaughey, Allen Jerkens, and Bobby Frankel. Wouldn't you know it is those four who will square off in Saturday's Ogden Phipps Handicap at Belmont.

Among the quartet assembled for the Grade 1 route, Azeri turned in this year's most impressive effort - by far - when she wired the Apple Blossom in her first start at age 6. Since then she has been asked to do things that are completely foreign to her - sprint seven furlongs in the Humana Distaff, then face the nation's best male milers in the Metropolitan Handicap.

Azeri faded to next-to-last in the Met, but the effort was deceptively strong, because she was within a length or so of the lead to the pace call and earned what was probably the best pace figure of her career. She paid the price late, but there are no brahma bulls like Strong Hope and Pico Central in this field - only Passing Shot and Storm Flag Flying, who dug down to their depths in a hard-fought but slowly run Shuvee last out, and Sightseek.

In her last four starts, Sightseek has won only once, finishing out of the money at 2-5, 3-5, and 6-5 in the other races. Is there a handicapper alive who has any idea what to expect from her at this point? When Sightseek has won, she has won big, often against suspect opposition. When she has chucked it, she has really chucked it lately, and one can also point to several earlier races where she was outgamed.

Here's hoping Pat Day doesn't get cute with Azeri's early speed and nullify her most potent weapon while allowing Sightseek to become braver than she really is.