05/21/2003 11:00PM

Quick Tip worth a dare in Julep

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NEW YORK - Saturday is a special day, not just because it starts a Memorial Day weekend that promises excellent stakes racing from coast to coast, or because it is opening day at Monmouth Park, but principally because reigning Horse of the Year Azeri runs in the $200,000 Milady Breeders' Cup Handicap at Hollywood Park.

Given that Azeri will be a prohibitive favorite against a handful of opponents, it is hard betting on her and it is even more difficult betting against her. But anytime a Horse of the Year races, it commands attention, even if betting isn't an appealing option.

Otherwise, turf racing is a predominant theme Saturday, with the $150,000 Yerba Buena Breeders' Cup Handicap at Bay Meadows, the $150,000 Early Times Mint Julep Handicap at Churchill, the $150,000 Connaught Cup at Woodbine, and the $100,000 Red Bank Handicap among the stakes scheduled to be run on the grass.

And of course, the 3-year-old division never gets too far out of sight this time of year. The headliner Saturday at Belmont Park is the $200,000 Peter Pan Stakes, the local prep for the Belmont Stakes, the last leg of the Triple Crown, to be run on June 7. It remains to be seen how much of an impact, if any, this Peter Pan will have on the Belmont. But it didn't look like the 1999 Peter Pan would have any impact on that year's Belmont, and look what happened: Lemon Drop Kid, who could manage to run only third in that Peter Pan, came back to win the Belmont at the expense of Triple Crown hopeful Charismatic - at a $61.50 mutuel.

Here are my spotlight stakes:

Early Times Mint Julep

Quick Tip, my selection, ran a terrific race last time out in the Distaff Turf Mile on the Kentucky Derby undercard. She came from off the pace, produced a sub-23-second final quarter-mile, and finished ahead of nine opponents. Most of the time, that would be more than enough for victory. But in that race, Quick Tip ran into a Bobby Frankel-trained freak named Heat Haze, who finished even stronger than she did to win.

The good news for Quick Tip is that there is no one in Heat Haze's league in this spot, and Quick Tip is returning over a surface she clearly fancies. In her previous attempt on the Churchill Downs turf course, last November, Quick Tip won the Cardinal Handicap, earning a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 100 and beating San Dare, who came back to win stakes at Gulfstream in her next two starts. San Dare is also in this field, and despite a sharp cutback in distance, is worth including in exotic wagers.

Peter Pan

Usually, blinkers off isn't nearly as significant an equipment change as blinkers on. But this move has certainly worked for Nacheezmo, and I'm going with him in this spot.

After losing his four starts last year, all with blinkers and twice as the favorite, Nacheezmo came out this year at Gulfstream without blinkers and won his maiden at the expense of Dynever. Dynever, of course, hasn't lost since, winning the Lone Star Derby and Aventura Stakes in his last two starts, and is a prime candidate for the Belmont Stakes. As if to underscore the strength of that maiden win, Nacheezmo came back to win his most recent start at Aqueduct by 13 lengths.

That last-out win by Nacheezmo was in the mud. That's important, because if Saturday's forecast for New York is accurate, the only ones who will prosper are wet-track lovers like Nacheezmo, and those who own arks.

Connaught Cup

The beauty of this race is that the probable favorite, Union Place, comes off a dull performance as the favorite at Belmont. And even when he runs well, Union Place seems to prefer finishing second to winning.

Le Cinquieme Essai is the pick. Le Cinquieme Essai has quality, having won the Prince of Wales Stakes last July, the middle leg of the Canadian Triple Crown. He also could be unbeaten on turf. Le Cinquieme Essai won his first two starts on grass - the second on a yielding course, which is notable given Saturday's weather forecast - and was a close fifth in a tough turf stakes last November after being sent prematurely into a strong second-quarter fraction. He hasn't raced since, but a romp off a layoff last year suggests he can run big off only workouts.