06/15/2005 11:00PM

Saint Liam merits 'singleton'


ELMONT, N.Y. - Suddenly, it is the second half of the season, and the landscape is much different than it was just a week ago.

Way back then, Afleet Alex was acknowledged as the one to beat in the Belmont Stakes, but if he didn't get the distance the race was up for grabs and so was the division. Now there is Afleet Alex, and then there is every other 3-year-old.

Less than a week ago there was Ghostzapper, and then there was every other older male. Now Ghostzapper is gone, and the handicap division is up for grabs.

The 3-year-olds get a break before resuming hostilities in the summer stakes - the Dwyer, Haskell, Jim Dandy, and Travers.

For the older males, and especially for those running in Saturday's Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs, the future is now.

To seize control of the division, Saint Liam must defeat, among others, the winners of the Foster's last two renewals, Colonial Colony and Perfect Drift. By all indications he has a very strong chance to do so.

Saint Liam deserves to be a clear favorite, but he might only be a lukewarm choice and therefore a low-priced overlay, after finishing a lackluster sixth in the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap in his last start.

Saint Liam deserves the benefit of the doubt for that race. After all, he is not the first horse to run a series of big races at 1 1/8 miles and fail to transfer that form to a classic distance.

The 1 1/8 miles of the Foster is Saint Liam's optimum distance, and he has run very well in all three of his starts at Churchill Downs. As a 3-year-old in May of 2003, he finished second in the Churchill slop with a then-top Beyer Speed Figure of 96, then caught a fast strip for a blowout allowance win with a 100 Beyer, his second straight new top figure on that surface. His only subsequent start at Churchill was a win in last fall's Clark Handicap at the Foster distance.

But perhaps the biggest factor in Saint Liam's favor is that he has had more than three months off since the Big 'Cap, because he has always been at his most explosive with his races well-spaced. He developed steadily during the winter and early spring of 2004, but the race that thrust him into national prominence was the Woodward, off a five-month layoff, when he locked up with Ghostzapper in a protracted duel and missed in a photo. From the time Ghostzapper won the 2003 Vosburgh all the way through his recent tour de force in the Met Mile, that is the only race in which another horse was able to so much as warm Ghostzapper up, let alone give him all he wanted through the length of the stretch.

Saint Liam had an 11-week freshening after the Woodward and responded to win the Clark. A 10-week layoff followed, and he won the Donn Handicap by open lengths at the expense of Roses in May and Eddington, who have since won the Dubai World Cup and the Pimlico Special, respectively. With 14 weeks off, Saint Liam is primed to fire his best shot, and his best shot is good enough to merit "singleton" status in either of the pick four sequences that are available - Churchill's $250,000 guaranteed pool, or the NTRA National Pick 4.

Watch out for Two Trail Sioux

Like the Foster, Churchill's Fleur de Lis Handicap is part of both pick four sequences. Among the eight older fillies and mares in the 1 1/8-mile Grade 2 are five who ran in the Louisville Breeders' Cup Handicap on Kentucky Oaks Day. That race featured a kamikaze-like duel and set up perfectly for deep closers Shadow Cast and Island Sand, who rallied from last and next to last to overtake Storm's Darling, who had middle-moved to the lead after stalking enervating fractions of 45.64 seconds and 1:10.96.

Two Trail Sioux beat just one horse and was nearly 20 lengths up the track as the third choice that day, but with extenuating circumstances. She was well bet at 3-1, and deservedly so, because she was seeking her sixth straight win since being stretched out to two turns. But after hopping at the break and coming out a bit slowly, she appeared very rank when forced to steady toward the inside approaching the first turn, and was finished early.

Two Trail Sioux probably became flustered when unable to reach her customary position on or near the early lead, and will benefit from the fact that the duelers from that race, Resplendency and Tempus Fugit, are not among those back for another go-round.

Most of the rivals Two Trail Sioux faces in the Fleur de Lis are rate-and-finish types, and a better break from her inside post may be all it takes to secure the front into the clubhouse turn.