05/26/2004 11:00PM

Sardaukar can handle class rise

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NEW YORK - We may have to wait for Memorial Day itself on Monday for most of the big holiday weekend stakes races such as the Met Mile, the Gamely, and the Shoemaker Mile. But there are still plenty of stakes races on Saturday, enough to appeal to even the most discerning bettor.

Two of the richest races Saturday at $150,000 each are also turf races for fillies and mares. They are the Sheepshead Bay Handicap at Belmont Park and the Early Times Mint Julep Stakes at Churchill Downs, and it is worth noting that the weather conditions in both locales promise to be perfect.

The other $150,000 event Saturday is the Lazaro S. Barrera Memorial at Hollywood Park for 3-year-olds. Meanwhile, at Delaware Park, 3-year-old fillies have center stage in the $100,000 Go for Wand Stakes.

There are two interesting $100,000 events for older males, the Hanshin Cup Handicap at Arlington Park, and the Donald Levine Memorial Handicap at Philadelphia Park.

And, Saturday is opening day at Monmouth Park, where three stakes will be decided: the $100,000 Red Bank Handicap on the turf, the $60,000 John J. Reilly Handicap for New Jersey-breds, and the $55,000 Gilded Time Stakes for 3-year-olds on the turf.

Here are my three spotlight stakes in order of preference:

Red Bank Handicap

Owner Michael Gill's horses win races in bunches almost everywhere he wants them to, except Southern California. In fact, Gill found winning there so difficult that he packed up and left. One of the rare successful exceptions for Gill out West was Sardaukar. The fact that Sardaukar was able to win 2 of 4 starts in California while the rest of his barn was so ineffective is to his credit, and he is my pick to score here in his return East. (Sardaukar is also entered in a $50,000 turf stakes at 1 1/8 miles Monday at Delaware.)

Not only did Sardaukar win once at Santa Anita and once earlier this month at Hollywood Park, he ran well both times, even if they were in mid- to high-priced claiming races. In the first of those wins, Sardaukar produced a sub-23-second final quarter-mile, while most recently at Hollywood, he was able to complete his final five-sixteenths of a mile in slightly more than 29 seconds. Those are solid come-home times that are often good enough to win lots of races at higher class levels. But, this slight bump in class shouldn't bother Sardaukar, because he was stakes-class in the mid-Atlantic region before heading west.

Tam's Terms should be included here in exotic wagers. He steadied into the backstretch and was four wide on the far turn last time out in a stakes at Pimlico when third behind subsequent Dixie winner Mr. O'Brien. Since that was Tam's Terms's first race in six months, he has a right to improve second time off the long layoff.

Sheepshead Bay Handicap

Meridiana and Alternate were only a nose apart when first and second in the Bewitch last time out, but as sharp as they are - that was Meridiana's second straight stakes score and third straight victory - Spice Island is going to get my money.

Spice Island was one of the better long-distance turf mares in the East late last year off victories in the Dowager and the Long Island Handicap. After a Florida campaign over the winter that is best forgotten, she signaled a return to that kind of form last time out in an allowance race against stakes-class males at Churchill Downs. Spice Island finished strongly to split Senor Swinger and Startac, despite getting a very slow pace that should have muted her closing kick.

Hanshin Cup

Kodema ran a big race finishing third in the Alysheba Stakes last time out on the Kentucky Oaks undercard, and I expect him to take this field.

In the Alysheba, Kodema finished behind Congrats, who is bidding to become a prominent member of this year's handicap division, after working to keep him honest on the front end. After that thankless task, Kodema was caught late for second by Pleasant Drift, who was one of the best older horses in the country last year. Kodema meets no such opponents in this spot. Moreover, this may be his turn to sit a perfect trip, tracking a pace set by Coach Jimi Lee, who is suspect at the distance, and pressed by Crafty Shaw.