11/14/2002 12:00AM

Play Avanzado - not Thunderello


Saturday's stakes action spans just about the entire spectrum, from the Grade 1, $300,000 Frank De Francis Memorial Dash at Laurel, which is supported by two resurrected stakes with rich histories - the $100,000 Laurel Futurity and the $100,000 Selima - to the inaugural Florida Million Day at Calder, consisting of six stakes for Florida-breds, to a program of nine stakes for Texas-breds at Sam Houston, to five stakes at Delta Downs for Louisiana-breds.

And, the icing on the cake is the weather, which threatens to be a factor at almost every track in the eastern part of the country. A forecast of heavy rain in New York Saturday throws the status of the $150,000 Long Island Handicap into question, and the same can be said for the $150,000 Mrs. Revere Stakes at Churchill Downs, where snow may actually mix in with the rain. It's difficult enough handicapping wide-open turf races such as these. Factor in the possibility that they may have to be moved to the main track, and may suffer a slew of unpredictable program scratches, and . . . well, I'll pass on those stakes, thank you.

Instead, I'll focus on races whose complexions may not change much no matter what the weather throws at us.

De Francis Dash: Avanzado over Thunderello

Can you imagine what the outcry would have been if there were still six winning Breeders' Cup pick six tickets at Catskill OTB if Thunderello had held on to win the Sprint at 48-1 instead of getting caught late by favored Orientate? Given the facts that have since emerged in this case, there likely would have been, and instead of it taking the day it took to launch the investigation, it probably would have only taken a minute after the payoffs were posted.

In any event, Thunderello, who surprisingly ran so well that day, returns in the De Francis. Simply put, if he runs back to his race in the Breeders' Cup, he wins. But I always try and beat horses like this. Thunderello ran his heart out at Arlington and is coming back in only three weeks. He is a lightly raced 3-year-old, which is in his favor for avoiding a bounce. Still, it's hard to envision he won't suffer some sort of regression, and on top of it all, he'll be a fraction of the price he was in Chicago.

Avanzado is my pick. Avanzado's victory last time out in the Forest Hills, which made him 3 for 3 in this country, is better than it looks on paper. First, he rated nicely down the backstretch, and that will help him in this spot. Then, nearing the wire, Avanzado did something weird, perhaps attempting to prop. Whatever it was he did, he nearly dumped his rider, and that certainly contributed to making his victory seem less conclusive than it was. Finally, if it rains, that won't be a problem. Avanzado did very well on wet tracks in his native Argentina.

Jack Dudley: It's at My Cousin Matt's mercy

Thunderello wasn't the only Scott Lake-trained horse pre-entered for the Breeders' Cup Sprint. My Cousin Matt was also pre-entered in the Sprint but was withdrawn Breeders' Cup week because of a minor illness.

That illness was a blessing in disguise. Instead of getting knocked out in the Breeders' Cup, My Cousin Matt heads to Calder still riding high on a three-race win streak, and has the field in this race at his mercy.

My Cousin Matt was claimed for $85,000 two starts back at Belmont, and not only did he win first out for his new connections to extend his win streak, but also he delivered a career best performance, and did it in the mud, so a wet track Saturday won't compromise him.

In addition, My Cousin Matt's running style of stalking and coming home strong is the right prescription in a spot here, which has several front-running types.

Mountaineer Mile: Docent fits many ways

Docent had won four straight on dirt before finishing a solid third against better in the Stuyvesant Handicap last time out, and he's going to get back in the winner's circle here.

One of those victories came over the track, in the West Virginia Governor's Handicap, in which Docent outgamed Burning Roma, who later gained notoriety for winning the Meadowlands Cup over subsequent Breeders' Cup Classic winner Volponi.

Not only is Docent fond of the track and sharp, but also he should also get a perfect pace set up Saturday. Between Generous Rosi, Slider, and Dash for Daylight, the fractions figure to be hot, and that plays right to Docent's stretch kick.