10/25/2006 11:00PM

Pine Island has come a long way

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ELMONT, N.Y. - If you had told trainer Shug McGaughey in March that eight months later he would be going for his fourth win in the Breeders' Cup Distaff with Pine Island, he would have looked at you cross-eyed.

"This was the farthest thing from my mind," McGaughey said Thursday morning at Belmont Park. "She wasn't one that was high on our list. She was a big, tall, lanky kind of thing and she just sort of kept coming."

In most people's eyes, Pine Island has come all the way to the top of the 3-year-old filly division. The explosive closing move Pine Island displayed in winning the Alabama and Gazelle has many believing she's a top candidate for the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff on Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs.

Pine Island has started only six times, but with McGaughey as her trainer, she has an excellent chance to be successful in the Distaff. McGaughey has participated in 11 runnings of the Distaff, winning three of them and saddling five second-place finishers. In 1995, he ran one-two in the race with Inside Information and Heavenly Prize. He also won in 1988 with Personal Ensign and last year with Pleasant Home.

Pine Island, a Phipps family homebred daughter of Arch out of the brilliantly fast but fragile mare Matlacha Pass, didn't train like a dirt horse during the winter in Florida, McGaughey said. On March 9, she won her debut on turf at Gulfstream by a neck over the subsequent stakes winner Hostess.

When he shipped Pine Island back to New York, McGaughey noted that she trained better on the dirt. Thus, he didn't mind when a first-level allowance race scheduled for the grass on June 8 was rained off to the main track. Pine Island splashed home a 5 1/2-length winner that day.

After that, McGaughey targeted the Coaching Club American Oaks, believing she would relish the 1 1/4-mile distance. McGaughey had hoped to run in an allowance race before the Coaching Club, but the race scheduled for the dirt was too close to the stakes. So, Pine Island ran in the Grade 1 Mother Goose, where she finished three-quarters of a length behind the multiple Grade 1 winner Bushfire.

"She only had run two times, and that probably cost her the win," McGaughey said. "She just made a couple of mistakes and sort of learned from that."

In the Coaching Club, Pine Island was again beaten less than a length when Wonder Lady Anne L opened up a huge lead around the turn and held Pine Island off.

McGaughey said he noticed a big change in Pine Island when she got to Saratoga, where she had her coming-out party, winning the Alabama by 1 1/4 lengths over Teammate.

"I think she was just more mature," McGaughey said. "She was a lot more into what she was doing in her everyday gallops and her works."

Javier Castellano, Pine Island's regular rider, said, "Her best race was the Alabama, because it was a mile and a quarter and they had speed and a big field."

Opting to avoid facing the older fillies and mares until later, McGaughey wheeled Pine Island back three weeks later in the Gazelle, where she again ran down Teammate and won by a length.

"I was a little nervous running her back that quick in the Gazelle off of two turns, but she came back here and she trained well and I thought it was the right thing to do," McGaughey said. "I think the Gazelle is a good race and then I wanted to give her a little bit of time in between, and I think it's worked out pretty well for her."

Pine Island has worked five times since the Gazelle and will have her final work on Sunday or Monday at Belmont before shipping to Kentucky. Though the Distaff is expected to have a full field, McGaughey believes the Churchill track will suit Pine Island's running style.

"I think the way that racetrack plays going around that first turn, horses usually spread out a little bit," he said. "I think they'll probably do it in the Breeders' Cup. As long as she can get her position, then she's got to pick her way through horses around the turn, and then hopefully the race will start separating itself and she'll have a clear shot at it when they get straightened away."