12/26/2002 1:00AM

Rochester plays first fiddle in McKnight


MIAMI - Asked to name a Jonathan Sheppard-trained long-distance handicap star, most people would think of With Anticipation. But Sheppard has another long-winded stakes winner in his barn - Rochester, possibly the one to beat in Saturday's wide-open W.L. McKnight Handicap Saturday at Calder.

The Grade 2, $200,000 McKnight is one of four handicaps on the Grand Slam II card. The others are the Grade 2, $200,000 La Prevoyante, the Grade 3, $100,000 Fred Hooper Jr., and the $100,000 Stage Door Betty.

While Rochester is not quite on par with his multiple Grade 1-winning stablemate With Anticipation, he has won three of his last four starts at the 1 1/2-mile distance of the McKnight. And all three victories came in stakes, including the Grade 3 Kentucky Cup Handicap. In his last start, Rochester ran fourth in the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup Handicap.

"I thought he ran fine in California," Sheppard said, "especially considering we couldn't work him on grass prior to shipping him out West due to rain. He's training up to the McKnight extremely well and [jockey] Pat [Day] knows him perfectly."

Rochester will carry 117 pounds, one less than starting highweight Man From Wicklow, who figures to go off as a slight favorite with Jerry Bailey aboard.

Man From Wicklow is winless in 2002, but has held his own against the best of the division, including With Anticipation, behind whom he finished fourth in the Sword Dancer Handicap and third in the Man o' War, both Grade 1's.

"I just hope we can finally get him a victory in one of these [graded stakes]," said trainer Rick Violette.

The McKnight field also includes graded stakes winners Dawn of the Condor, Whata Brainstorm, and Whitmore's Conn. Also in field are Mr. Pleasentfar, Williams News, Serial Bride, Riddlesdown, Macaw, Lasting Tribute, and Gritty Sandie.

Dawn of the Condor won the Grade 2 Knickerbocker Handicap in New York and the 12-furlong Bensalem Handicap last year.

Whata Brainstorm is seeking to regain the form with which he won the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap and finished second in the Grade 2 Pan American Handicap in 2001.

Whitmore's Conn upset Belmont's Grade 2 Bowling Green Handicap this year.

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