10/29/2008 11:00PM

Overlooked Euros could liven up Long Island

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - The meet-opener release from the NYRA press office led off with the observation that, "As the holidays come closer, there is a festive mood at Aque-

duct . . ."

Excuse me? Initial reactions to that statement lean toward sarcasm for obvious reasons. "Gray" and "cold" are the two terms most commonly associated with a facility fast approaching the half-century mark of service. And Wednesday's muddy track, whipping Northwest winds and frost advisories served as a chilling reminder that Old Man Winter is coming to hand nicely.

Still, some glass-half-full types pointed out several reasons for mirth and merriment:

* Thanks to the time change on opening weekend, you get an extra hour to handicap Sunday's card, which includes the Nashua and Tempted, a pair of hundred-granders at a mile for 2-year-olds that are wide open.

* No turf sprints for over six months.

* First post is 12:30 p.m., and with a ninth-race post of 4:12 with just a few exceptions, the whole shebang takes less than four hours. Why, you could pack two festive days at the Big A into this year's Belmont Stakes Day, a true test of everyone's stamina consisting of 13 races spread out over eight hours.

* Er, ski mask giveaway day?

Seriously, though, you never know when a really good horse is going to come along. Storm Play made it three daylight victories from as many starts by taking an overnight stakes Wednesday, and each time he runs you become more convinced he'll be a tip-top 4-year-old in 2009 for Jimmy Jerkens.

And as Go for Gin and Smarty Jones proved, every once in a while the road to the Kentucky Derby goes through Rockaway Boulevard. Along those lines, the first leg of Saturday's late pick four is a 2-year-old maiden special weight, and contains several pricey first-time starters.

The second leg of the pick four is the 52nd running of the Long Island Handicap, a three-turn Grade 3 for fillies and mares.

The two who have matched the Beyer par of 100 are J'ray, a well-traveled New York-bred who can surpass $1 million in earnings with a win, and Hostess, who won the Glens Falls in course-record time. Each has major sticking points, however. J'ray was good enough at 1 3/8 miles to be beaten less than a length by Mauralakana earlier this year, but has spent most of her career at middle distances and has never attempted the Long Island's 12 furlongs. Hostess, meanwhile, has won both of her starts at the trip, including the Orchid over Mauralakana, but prefers firmer ground than she's likely to get on Saturday.

Horseplayers know intuitively that the distance and autumn-softened turf favor Europeans, so it's no surprise that four of the last six renewals have been won by fillies making their first U.S. starts: Uriah came in from Germany to win in 2:42.40 over a bog in 2002; Eleusis and Olaya arrived from France to win in 2004-05; and last year's winner, Dalvina, had raced in England and Ireland.

What is surprising are some of the prices: Uriah paid $18.60 over very soft turf, despite having won over heavy ground 13 days earlier; Olaya, who had won a listed stakes at 12 furlongs overseas, paid $9.40 in a field of seven; and Dalvina, first-time Lasix, returned $13 last year.

The key price-getting aspect was that none of the four had won a group stakes overseas. (Eleusis paid only $5.30, but would have been a higher price had she not been coupled with the more accomplished Noble Stella.)

Based on this recent history, the Andre Fabre-trained fillies Shake the Moon and Astrologie can be expected to run well. Shake the Moon exits a runner-up finish in the Prix Joubert, which is the same race that Eleusis came out of; Astrologie has already won twice at 12 furlongs, and finished fourth in a Group 2 stakes four weeks ago.

The other logical alternative is Criticism, who gets another crack at Sunshine for Life after finishing a close second behind that loose-on-the-lead winner in the Athenia Handicap - her first start in 10 months, and her first outside of France.