08/30/2001 11:00PM

Proud Man ripe for an upset?

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - While Proud Man is certainly the most accomplished of the nine

3-year-olds entered in Sunday's $100,000 Saranac Handicap at Saratoga, he may also be at his most vulnerable in the Grade 3 race, which is run at 1 3/16 miles on turf.

Proud Man, a winner of four Grade 3 stakes this year, has not been out in 11 weeks, has yet to race beyond nine furlongs and, as the 122-pound highweight, must concede four to 10 pounds to the field.

Those factors give hope to his rival trainers, including Mark Hennig, who sends out Strategic Partner.

"I'd rather take him on under these circumstances at 1 3/16 miles," Hennig said.

Strategic Partner has twice faced Proud Man, finishing third behind him in the Palm Beach at Gulfstream and the Everglades at Hialeah. But those races were before Strategic Partner was equipped with blinkers and treated with Lasix. Since then, Strategic Partner has two wins and two seconds from five starts.

"He's gotten better; I still think there's room for improvement," said Hennig, whose horse will break from post 2 under John Velazquez and 118 pounds. "As he grows up, he's going to be a better horse. He lacked a killer instinct prior to the blinkers. He's developed a little bit of that now and I think he'll continue to move forward."

Last Sunday, trainer Graham Motion won with all four horses he sent out between Monmouth Park and Delaware Park. This Sunday, his only runner is Bay Eagle, who comes off a solid second-place finish in the Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs, just his second turf race in 13 career starts.

"I thought he ran a huge race in the Virginia Derby," Motion said. "It was probably one of the more frustrating races of the year for me because I thought at the eighth pole I had it and the other horse [Potaro] dug back in."

Bay Eagle must overcome post 9 under Ramon Dominguez and 116 pounds.

Of course, the horse to beat is Proud Man, who drew post 5 and will be ridden by Jerry Bailey. Proud Man is 6-2-0 from eight turf starts, including a victory in the Grade 3 Hill Prince in June at Belmont. He cut his right hind pastern in the race, however. His connections do not feel the layoff is a problem but they are concerned with a turf course that could be softened by weekend rains.

A live longshot in the field is Fast City, who only has a maiden win to his credit, but was only beaten two lengths in the Grade 3 Jefferson Cup at Churchill Downs.

Monsieur Cat, Berchtesgaden, Please Me Doc, Rapid Ryan, and Blazing Fury complete the field.