09/22/2008 12:00AM

Prime weekend for BC preps

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While the 20 graded stakes scheduled for Belmont Park, Santa Anita, and Turfway Park this Saturday and Sunday will provide several good wagering opportunities, they also will provide important clues regarding dozens of Breeders' Cup contenders.

Breeders' Cup Handicapping 101 says that a solid, but not over-the-top-performance in a final prep race usually is a prerequisite to a good BC performance. But this year, the eight weekend stakes at Santa Anita will be particularly useful to evaluate how many potential BC horses handle the new Pro-Ride synthetic racing surface.

To a lesser extent we may glean similar clues from the four graded stakes on the Polytrack surface at Turfway Park, just as we will be able to assess fitness and class from the eight graded stakes at Belmont Park worth an aggregate $3.5 million.

In 2007 - when there was no synthetic track issue - stakes winners at Belmont won four of the five main track BC races on the sloppy dirt racing surface at Monmouth Park. The other main track BC race was won by a Saratoga stakes winner, while two of the three turf events also were won by horses coming out of a Belmont prep race.

It is unclear if 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin will go from the $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont on Sept. 27 to the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 25. But, if he beats the good 3-year-old Mambo in Seattle or finishes stronger than he did while winning the Woodward at Saratoga, his connections will have no excuse to duck Big Brown in the Classic. Fact is, the Classic will be a neutral surface for both horses, as well as for some high class upset threats shipping in from Europe.

At the same time, the Japanese-based Casino Drive may be skipping the $500,000 Goodwood at Santa Anita on Saturday, but is pointing to the Classic following a prep race over the track against allowance company.

Here are some of the principal contenders for many of the Sept 27-28 stakes, with a few things worth keeping in mind.

Defending BC Distaff winner Ginger Punch is expected to compete in the $600,000 Beldame at Belmont on Saturday. Players looking to beat her in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic may be encouraged if she is forced into another all-out effort to win her fourth straight Grade 1. She is a fighter, but this year's Ladies Classic is going to pit her against an exceptionally strong group of rivals, including undefeated Zenyatta and a strong group of 3-year-olds, including Music Note. Zenyatta, by the way may go in the $250,000 Lady's Secret at Santa Anita on Saturday.

Mauralakana probably will be favored in the $600,000 Flower Bowl Invitational turf race on the Saturday Belmont card. A winner of her last four outings, including the Beverly D. at Arlington Park on Aug. 9, Mauralakana has been perfectly handled by Christophe Clement, who is building a Hall of Fame resume with a long list of graded stakes turf fillies and mares. But, keep in mind that the equally talented Kiaran McLaughlin unleashed a vastly improved Lahudood in this race last year to signal her readiness for the $2 million BC Filly and Mare Turf. Given that, it would be wise to keep an eye out for any similar performance by a late-developing turf filly in this event or in the $400,000 Yellow Ribbon at Santa Anita the same day.

While defending BC Sprint winner Midnight Lute is recovering from an injury and may go in the BC Sprint with no prep races, the $400,000 Vosburgh looks like a roulette wheel on horseback, with stakes winners Black Seventeen, Fabulous Strike, J Be K, Kodiak Kowboy, and Rockerfeller all in the mix. That said, at least equal if not more BC credibility probably should go to the horses that perform strongly in the $250,000 Ancient Title on the Pro-Ride at Santa Anita. Going into the Ancient Title, Street Boss certainly has the best pre-race credentials, having won five straight, including three graded stakes on synthetic tracks in Southern California.

By almost unanimous consensus, the most talented contenders for this year's $3 million BC Turf probably will come from a solid group of Europeans, some of whom also are under consideration for the BC Classic and/or the $2 million BC Mile. Meanwhile, the top American-based contenders will get a chance to make a more favorable impression in the $600,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont on Saturday. To this point, the probable starters in the Joe Hirsch - Dancing Forever, Grand Couturier, Presious Passion, Strike a Deal, and Summer Patriot - appear to be at least a cut below several Euros, including multiple Group 1 winners New Approach and Red Rocks, the latter already a BC Turf winner in 2006.

In the one-mile Kelso at Belmont on Sunday, Stalingrad would seem to be in an ideal position to show that a mile is his best game against Forefathers, Giant Wrecker, Hellvelyn, Media Play, Midwatch, and Tam Lin. At Santa Anita on Sunday, Del Mar Mile winner Whatsthescript may head a moderately accomplished field in the Oak Tree Mile, a race also designed to identify potential BC Mile contenders

That notwithstanding, should highly ranked Henrythenavigator ship in from England for the BC Mile he would tower over any of the horses scheduled to run in either the Kelso or the Oak Tree. Secretariat winner Winchester looked strong enough in the 1 1/4-mile Secretariat at Arlington on Aug. 9, that trainer Dermot Weld might switch his focus from the Mile to the 1 1/2-mile BC Turf, pending what other top Euros actually show up at Santa Anita on Oct. 25.

Among the other graded stakes on tap this weekend there will be opportunities to see potential contenders for the four BC races for 2-year-olds. The Oak Leaf on Saturday and the Norfolk on Sunday at Santa Anita should identify the best Western-based contenders for the $2 million BC Juvenile and $2 million BC Juvenile Fillies. Meanwhile at Belmont, the Pilgrim and Miss Grillo stakes on Sunday are certain to provide at least a few contenders to the BC Juvenile Turf and BC Juvenile Fillies Turf, both $1 million races.

The five stakes at Turfway this weekend, include four graded events, are similarly designed to provide some contenders for Breeders' Cup races. They include, the $250,000 Kentucky Cup Classic, a Grade 2 race at 1 1/8 miles; the $100,000 Kentucky Cup Juvenile, a Grade 3 for 2-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles; the $100,000 Kentucky Cup Sprint, a Grade 3 for 3-year-olds and up at six furlongs; the $100,000 Kentucky Cup Distaff, a Grade 3 for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles; and the non-graded $100,000 Kentucky Cup Juvenile Fillies, for 2-year-old fillies at one mile.

To this point, not a whole lot has been learned about any of the juveniles being considered for the four BC prep races for 2-year-olds. But so far, I have been most impressed by a handful that are not scheduled to run this weekend: Azul Leon, who finished strongly for second in the Best Pal stakes at Del Mar; Charitable Man, an exceptional winner of the $250,000 Belmont Futurity on Sept 13; and Stardom Bound, who looked as if she was properly named while looping the field to win the Del Mar Debutante on Sept 1.

Mani Bhavan, who won two graded sprint stakes for fillies at Saratoga, has the best form in her division to date, but will bear watching in her final BC prep stretching out in distance on Oct 4 in the Frizette at Belmont or the Alcibiades at Keeneland.

All of the graded stakes this weekend and next may be richly endowed, prestigious races in their own right, but horseplayers looking to make a score or two on Breeders' Cup Day should do the same thing as most of the best BC conscious trainers: Treat these races as pure prep races with an eye out for those horses that seem to appreciate the synthetic surfaces where applicable and for those that show clear-cut signs of peaking next month.