02/12/2004 1:00AM

Pacesetters face heat in $100k race


OLDSMAR, Fla. - It's ironic that the 18th running of Saturday's $100,000 Tampa Bay Downs Breeders' Cup will be run the day before the start of the 2004 NASCAR season because there's enough speed in this field of turf specialists to warrant roll bars and restrictor plates.

That's why many trip and pace scenario handicappers will be leaning toward stalkers and deep closers such as French Charmer and Remind when they make their selections for the 1 1/16-mile turf race.

In the case of French Charmer bettors will be looking at a 5-year-old who is making only his 17th career start. But as trainer Harry Benson said from his home base in Miami, it isn't physical problems but a lack of good spots to run in that have kept French Charmer's racing schedule so light.

"He's been a pretty sound horse," Benson said. "It's just been a case of finding the right races for him at the right time. I'm from the old school and don't believe in over-racing my horses. We only started him [French Charmer] seven times last year, but he won five - so I guess the light schedule works, eh?"

In the past three races French Charmer was farther back in the early going than in his previous races, but Henson said you can expect his runner to be a bit closer to the pace.

"That was by design that we had him farther back but that was a mistake," he said. "He won't be on the lead, that's for sure. But he'll be closer to the pace than he was previous. We were just asking too much of him to come from that far back."

When told there was an overabundance of speed rivals in the race Henson said, "Great. The more the merrier. He loves to run at horses, and the more speed up front, the better it gets for us."

French Charmer won four consecutive starts last year, including the John Schapiro B.C. Handicap at Laurel on a soft turf course, and with rain forecast for the area over the weekend, the weather might well be in his favor, as well.

Other top threats to win include Remind, a Bill Mott trainee who finished second in four straight stakes last summer then came back in the fall to win the Storm Cat Stakes at Keeneland with a late rally; Final Prophecy, fourth in the Grade II Red Smith over soft ground at Aqueduct; and Burning Roma, fourth here on the main track in his 2004 debut and a smashing winner of this race last year.

Burning Roma looks the best of a number of speed horses in this race. Among the others are multiple stakes winner Tour of the Cat and Hear No Evil, who led until the late stages of two tough grass stakes in south Florida, the Pete Axthelm Memorial and Sunshine Millions Turf, before finishing second in both races.