09/25/2003 12:00AM

Pick four plan: Spread until Mineshaft


ELMONT, N.Y. - After looking over the all-Grade 1 pick four at Belmont Park on Saturday, the first inclination is the bet probably won't pay much because the brilliant Mineshaft looms a prohibitive choice in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and morning-line favorites like Heat Haze and Sulamani look solid.

But maybe you've noticed that things don't usually work out that way.

The initial impression on Woodward Day was for a low-paying sequence, too. But for a few scattered and astute bettors, that pick four turned out to be an $8,338 home run even though Mineshaft paid $2.60 in the Woodward and a lukewarm favorite won the last leg.

Of course, that one started with Buy the Sport's stunning Gazelle at 48-1, and Lunar Sovereign's sudden return to form in the Man o' War at 10-1. This goes to show that a vital skill of exotic betting is knowing when to spread, as with Lunar Sovereign, in the hope that a horse might return to form on its preferred course, and when to hit the "all" button and root for chaos, as with a hard-to-gauge import like Buy the Sport.

A more detailed inspection of Saturday's stakes suggests there again is potential chaos lurking just below the surface, particularly in the three races that precede Mineshaft's concluding leg.

Vosburgh: Remember the pre-Breeders' Cup era, when Grade 1 races in the fall attracted more than the occasional Grade 1-caliber runner?

Or Dr. Fager's Vosburgh in a track-record 1:20 1/5 under 139 pounds?

How about Forego winning the Woodward, turning back to mow 'em down in the Vosburgh under 131, and then stretching back out to win the Gold Cup at two miles?

Those were the sort of heroics that made lifelong fans out of impressionable youngsters back in the day, but this Saturday's Vosburgh contains no such immortals. In fact, several entrants have run in claiming races at one time or another, and only My Cousin Matt (General George) and Posse (Riva Ridge, Lafayette) have won graded stakes this year.

But perhaps the race's most significant aspect is the lack of early speed. The only starter who has gone to the front with any degree of consistency is Voodoo, who finished third in last year's Vosburgh after steadying early behind front-running Bonapaw in a short field.

This renewal has more horses than a year ago, but Voodoo might get the lead without much effort. It's worth noting he was able to upset Aldebaran under similar circumstances last year, albeit in a classified allowance.

Pace aside, the class of the field, and the likeliest winner, is Gygistar.

A multiple graded stakes winner, including the Grade 1 King's Bishop by open lengths at age 3, Gygistar was handled too patiently in the recent Forego Handicap and found himself five lengths off the lead at the pace call. Gygistar is usually much closer than that, no matter how fast the early fractions. With a rider switch to the more aggressive John Velazquez, and making his third start back from a layoff, he may get a great stalking trip.

Flower Bowl: Based on their U.S. form, Heat Haze is better than Dimitrova, but is she 10 pounds better?

Ten pounds is no trivial matter at 1 1/4 miles on turf, especially since Dimitrova is no slouch.

Dimitrova is the only 3-year-old in the field, and because of that she gets a five-pound concession from her elders. It gets more interesting, though, because she gets five additional pounds from this loophole in the allowance conditions: "Non-winners of a Grade 1 since Oct. 1, 2002, or a Grade 2 since April 1, 2003 allowed five pounds."

Two starts back, Dimitrova won the American Oaks at Hollywood Park. It was a 14-horse field, and she won by two lengths after running down Sand Springs, who came back to wire a stakes at Saratoga. At 750 large, the American Oaks is the richest event on the calendar for 3-year-old fillies - but it's not graded yet, so Dimitrova gets the extra weight off.

The other potential spoiler may be Snow Dance, who spent her summer breaking in the air in the Diana and the Ballston Spa at Saratoga.

At 1 1/4 miles on this course three races back, she won the New York Handicap by running her last quarter-mile in 22.74 seconds, and her 104 Beyer from that race matches up with Heat Haze's best.

Turf Classic: Most observers have been saying all year how the U.S. turf horses are mediocre, and just wait till the Europeans get here.

Well, here they are. Sulamani finished well in the Arlington Million, even though he had a stone bruise a few days before the race. He's better at 1 1/2 miles, which is bad news for his Turf Classic rivals.

Polish Summer and Sabiango look like they're a cut below, but sometimes the change of scenery does wonders. Sometimes Lasix does wonders, too, and Sabiango gets it for the first time.

Lunar Sovereign has the home-turf advantage, with four wins in as many starts over the Belmont courses. All of them were by large margins, the latest a breakthrough effort in the Man o' War, when he gained four lengths into a last three-eighths of 35.99 seconds to demolish the field.

Jockey Club Gold Cup: The "6000000" under Moon Ballad's Dubai World Cup line may look impressive, but let's face it, that was the most counterfeit $6 million horse race you're ever likely to see. Harlan's Holiday was the only other legitimate dirt horse in the field, and you can be sure the Nad Al Sheba surface was groomed exactly to Moon Ballad's liking that evening in the desert.

Mineshaft, meanwhile, is in the midst of a throwback campaign, and returned from a designed two-month freshening with a powerhouse display in the Woodward, in which he erased a two-length deficit into a last three-eighths in 34.96 seconds to draw off under a hand ride.

Let's see Moon Ballad deal with that.