12/28/2007 1:00AM

Questions surround favorites

EmailMIAMI - The late sportswriter Pete Axthelm always loved a good handicapping challenge. And the race Calder named in his honor, the $100,000 Pete Axthelm Stakes, figures to provide just that Saturday with a full field of 12 3-year-olds in the 7 1/2-furlong race.

The Axthelm is one of four $100,000 stakes on Saturday's Grand Slam III Day at Calder

The Axthelm field is not only evenly matched but talented, with eight in the field having already captured at least one stakes this year, and a ninth, Birdbirdistheword, who won the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot as a 2-year-old in 2006.

Pleasant Strike and Sleeping Indian will likely vie for favoritism in the Axthelm, although both colts have some questions to answer.

Pleasant Strike will try to recapture the form that saw him win the Grade 3 Arlington Classic in June. The son of Smart Strike is winless in three subsequent outings, including an eighth-place finish following an early pace duel in the Grade 1 Secretariat Stakes. Pleasant Strike rebounded from that performance with a second-place finish behind the fast-closing War Monger in Monmouth Park's Rutgers Stakes during Breeders' Cup week.

Sleeping Indian is perfect in three starts since trainer Allen Jerkens switched him to the grass following a fourth-place finish in his career debut this summer at Saratoga. Sleeping Indian led throughout to post a 1 3/4-length decision making his stakes debut in Aqueduct's Volponi Stakes in his most recent start, but will pick up four pounds off that effort and must overcome a tough starting position in post 11, which gives him a relatively short run to the first turn.

The versatile Birdbirdistheword has not started since finishing a tiring seventh over yielding ground in the Grade 3 American Turf on May 4. Although he scored the most important victory of his career on dirt when he won the Delta Jackpot, Birdbirdistheword did register a pair of grass victories at 2.

There also is little to choose between with the locally based trio of Mysterious Peintre, Fearless Eagle, and Fair Weather Stan, who finished first, second, and fourth earlier this month in the Mel's Hope Stakes.

Fillies and mares will be in the spotlight in both the $100,000 Chaposa Springs and Stage Door Betty handicaps. The Chaposa Springs will be decided at seven furlongs, while the Grade 3 Stage Door Betty goes at 1 1/16 miles.

The Calder-based speedball Cher Ami might be a slight favorite over fellow 3-year-olds Change Up and Forever Together and the older Running Lass in the Chaposa Springs.

Cher Ami has won 5 of 7 starts over Calder's main track and four of those victories were one-sided stakes wins this season at distances ranging between six furlongs and a mile.

Change Up appears to be rounding back to the form that saw her win the Grade 3 Pocahontas Stakes at 2. Trained by Steve Margolis, Change Up comes off a second-place finish in the Dream Supreme at Churchill Downs.

Forever Together figures to improve off her third-place finish behind Running Lass in the seven-furlong Connie Ann Stakes on Nov. 24 when she made her first start in more than five months. Forever Together opened her career with three straight victories, including a win in Gulfstream's Grade 2 Forward Gal Stakes.

Amazing Speed, in peak form, is the 121-pound highweight and likely favorite in a Stage Door Betty field that also includes Bayou's Lassie, Annabil, Cindy's Mom, and Exchanging Fire.

Amazing Speed led throughout to capture the Sonic Gray, an overnight stakes, in her last start, but may have to alter tactics if Exchanging Fire is intent on the lead, as expected.

Exchanging Fire, a former claimer, registered three wire-to-wire stakes victories earlier this year in New Jersey for trainer Stephen Mick. She'll be saddled by Steve DiMauro in the Stage Door Betty.

"I think she's the fastest filly in this field, although whether she can carry her speed the distance may depend a lot on whether anyone else is intent on making the lead too," DiMauro said.