04/08/2009 11:00PM

Pace figures to be decisive in Saturday stakes

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - If I had a nickel for every time someone uttered the phrase, "pace makes the race," I'd have long since retired to Tahiti, but the old adage is apropos in three high-profile stakes around the nation Saturday.

Aqueduct's Grade 2 Comely drew just six 3-year-old fillies, yet it was left as the third leg of the weekly $250,000-guaranteed late pick four, even though stakes with similarly short fields were left out of the mix when the bet commenced in February.

That's probably because it's a devilishly tough little pace matchup, one that features the seasonal debut of Laragh, who will be making her first start on conventional dirt; and Dream Play, the beaten odds-on choice in a swiftly-run Cicada who ventures beyond six furlongs for the first time.

Throw in Platinum Girl, a Todd Pletcher-trained filly who is 3 for 3 with the early lead but off the board in five starts without it, and it is clear something has to give through the opening fractions.

Laragh showed class and versatility at 2, winning her maiden on Polytrack at Woodbine, the Jessamine on turf at Keeneland, and the Hollywood Starlet on Cushion Track at Hollywood Park, all in front-running fashion.

"A mile is great for her," trainer John Terranova said. "When the gates open, she knows where she wants to be. In each of her races, she's taken control."

The key question with Laragh may not involve whether she can handle dirt, since she has trained very well on it and her running style is a natural fit, but whether she can handle a stalking trip if Dream Play outsprints her down the backstretch.

And whether Dream Play can do that is open to question, because through four races she is best classified as a speed horse that is not especially quick from the gate, which is to say she has broken last three times.

That trait cost her dearly as the 3-4 favorite in the Cicada, when she was flat-footed from the rail chasing Heart Ashley's blistering fractions in what turned out to be the fastest stakes performance by any 3-year-old filly this season.

Being a three-quarter-sister to Diplomat Lady, the '05 Starlet winner, Dream Play has the pedigree to stay a mile, but her ability to pass horses remains a big X-factor.

The prime beneficiary could be Don't Forget Gil, who put it all together to win the Florida Oaks as much the best. She was on a dead rail in her lone start on Aqueduct's main track last fall, and so far she's been the type of filly who moves up second time over a given surface - 10 Beyer points in the Busanda second time on the inner and nine points in the Florida Oaks second time out at Tampa Bay.

Papa Clem could get easy lead

An interesting pace situation also looms in the Arkansas Derby, where 9-5 morning-line choice Old Fashioned drew post 8 and the only other speed, Papa Clem, drew post 2.

To set the stage, recall that Old Fashioned was 2-5 in the Rebel four weeks ago, when he looked home free after moving into a hot pace to take over around the far turn and was run down late by last-to-first closer Win Willy, who lit up the tote board at 56-1.

Off goes Ramon Dominguez, back on comes Terry Thompson, and you can be sure the instructions from Larry Jones are as follows: "Look, if we're going to have a chance in the Kentucky Derby, this horse has got to learn to rate, so I want you to teach him something today."

Whether or not Old Fashioned rates kindly is questionable, in view of the fact that his most impressive performance came in the Remsen, when he was able to waltz through uncontested fractions. But if he is under rating tactics early, that leaves Papa Clem free and easy on the lead from a cozy post, and this is a colt who's already been competitive with the best 3-year-olds from the West and the Midwest.

Lack of speed may aid Ravalo

For a $250,000 Grade 2 sprint, Keeneland's Commonwealth has come up decidedly low on early pace.

Three potentially key points:

* Rebellion is an obvious contender in his first start of the year, if only because he won the race last year off a similar layoff. But last year's comment was, "six wide, in time," and whether he gets a suitably contested pace is questionable.

* Storm Treasure's 1-2-0 record from 3 Keeneland starts is a bit misleading, since the two placings came on the old dirt track - as a maiden in fall 2005 and in the Blue Grass chasing Sinister Minister the following spring. He did, however, win a first-level allowance on the Polytrack in fall 2007.

* Ravalo, by my Quirin-style figures, ran in a fast-paced Paumonok when he chased True Quality, a race that featured the second-fastest pace of the winter meet behind the Toboggan on Gotham Day. He was hemmed in after breaking a step slow from the rail, but has since been freshened and has won 3 of 4 on synthetics - all on Presque Isle's Tapeta surface.

Lone speed on Polytrack - is there anything better?