10/25/2006 11:00PM

Rain a key element at Big A


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Had the Breeders' Cup been scheduled at Monmouth Park this year instead of next, the outbreak of equine herpesvirus would have been a full-blown disaster no matter how quickly it was contained. And had Belmont Park been the host this year instead of last, the Breeders' Cup would have been run this Saturday through what is supposedly going to be a miserable rainy afternoon.

Thankfully, the Cup isn't until next Saturday at Churchill Downs. The only casualty on the East Coast was Aqueduct's Knickerbocker Handicap, a Grade 3 turf stakes for older males that management postponed until next Saturday because of the forecast for poor weather.

On the bright side, Saturday's Big A card of nine one-turn dirt races still contains the Grade 3 Sport Page Breeders' Cup and the Grade 2 First Flight, a pair of $150,000 handicap sprints at seven furlongs that pose interesting handicapping questions.

The First Flight drew 10 fillies and mares. Among them, oddly enough, are Annika Lass, the winner of the 2005 Steven Van Buren Handicap at Philadelphia Park, and the one-two finishers from this year's Van Buren, Splendid Blended and Notimetoquit.

Annika Lass has made a career out of running well when bettors least expect it. She has earned more than 30 times her 2-year-old purchase price ($11,000), beginning with a debut victory at $37.80, and then paying off at 4-1 or better in four of six subsequent victories, the last of which was the 2005 Van Buren at $26.80. Annika Lass has not won this season, but she began the year with third-place finishes at Aqueduct in the Distaff and Bed O' Roses at odds of better than 17-1 and 5-1.

The rainy forecast may work in favor of Splendid Blended, who wired a sloppy Van Buren in her first start back from a four-month layoff. Her disappointing race in the Turfway Park Breeders' Cup last out was probably a case of racing wide on a Polytrack surface she disliked.

A wet track could work against Great Intentions and Win McCool, who each won sprint stakes at Belmont's fall meet. Great Intentions ran the worst race of her career as the favorite in the La Brea on a sealed wet-fast track at Santa Anita. Win McCool's lone wet-track race, an 11-length loss, is inconclusive because it occurred in her debut, but her bigger issue may be an oddly shaped foot and a propensity for losing shoes.

"She lost a front shoe in her last race, and that's what got her beat, because she was just galloping at the three-eighths pole," said trainer Bobby Barbara. "She did the same thing in the Prioress."

The one overriding aspect of the Sport Page is whether the freakishly fast Afrashad can stretch out to seven furlongs and do it in a stakes. He has won 4 of 5 starts at six furlongs by open lengths while never being headed, but he faded to fourth in the A.G. Vanderbilt after being unable to shake loose down the backstretch.

"He really got rattled up in the paddock," said Rick Mettee, assistant to trainer Saeed bin Suroor. "He's done real well, and he's a much more polished horse going into this race than he was in the Vanderbilt."

A wet track should help Afrashad's cause, judging from the way he relished the slop at Belmont last out.

To win the Sport Page, Afrashad has to deal with pressure from Kazoo, who wired the Grade 3 Toboggan with a 107 Beyer Speed Figure earlier this season, and the Maryland-based bullet P. Kerney, who has been the pace-call leader in each of his eight starts this year. But Kazoo is a grizzled 8-year-old coming off his worst performance in 16 months, and P. Kerney has not been nearly as formidable in the slop as he has been on fast tracks.

The closers are Silver Wagon and Sir Greeley, and each comes with baggage. Silver Wagon has always favored Saratoga above all other tracks, and has no experience with off going. Sir Greeley was "all jarred up after the Met," according to trainer Jimmy Jerkens, referring to the Metropolitan Mile in May. Sir Greeley will make his first start in five months in the Sport Page, but he was a game second in a sloppy Carter Handicap on this track back in April.