10/14/2008 12:00AM

Sefroua enticing vs. tough favorite


NEW YORK - After the whirlwind of major stakes activity that took place the last two weekends, Saturday's stakes schedule seems almost tame by comparison. The stakes with the richest purse and the highest grade is the Grade 1, $500,000 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland, where the Grade 3, $200,000 Perryville Stakes will also be decided. The only other graded stakes in the country Saturday are the $250,000 Hawthorne Derby, the $100,000 Athenia Handicap at Belmont Park, and the $100,000 Harold C. Ramser Sr. Handicap at Oak Tree. They are Grade 3's.

Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup

Backseat Rhythm, who for some mysterious reason is not the morning-line favorite, is absolutely the horse to beat in this event. Backseat Rhythm used her potent late kick to win the Grade 1 Garden City and Grade 2 Lake Placid Stakes in her last two starts, both at the same 1o1/8-mile distance she'll go on Saturday. In the Garden City, Backseat Rhythm beat Ariege, who is the morning-line favorite despite that loss, and despite having yet to win at Saturday's distance. And even though Backseat Rhythm won't get the kind of off footing this time that she did when she won the Garden City, the Lake Placid, and an allowance race four starts back, she doesn't need it. When she won a loaded maiden race last fall, leaving the stakes winners Country Star and Mushka in her wake, Backseat Rhythm won on a firm turf course.

Yet as much as I respect Backseat Rhythm in this spot, I'm going against her with Sefroua, mainly because of what I sense the final odds will be. While I don't think Sefroua will be anywhere close to the 20-1 she is on the morning line (although I certainly hope I'm wrong on that one), if she is close to even half of that, it makes her an appealing play against Backseat Rhythm's expected price of around 3-1.

Sefroua's only start in this country was a solid effort in the recent Noble Damsel Handicap. Although the Noble Damsel is "only" a Grade 3 event, the fact that it was open to older opponents means that it was every bit as tough a race, if not tougher, than the higher graded stakes restricted to 3-year-old fillies that Backseat Rhythm and almost every other entrant in this race comes out of.

Even at this time of year, when a 3-year-old drops into a race restricted to members of his or her age group after facing older opponents, it is a distinct class drop.

In any event, Sefroua took a good bit of money in the Nobel Damsel and rallied to finish a game third, beaten less than two lengths by Criminologist, who has been almost automatic at the Grade 3 level this year. Sefroua was cut out to be a good one - she's by Kingmambo out of the Group 1 winner Sophisticat, herself a daughter of Serena's Song - and she has a right to improve off her U.S. debut with the switch in trainers to the very capable Graham Motion, and with the addition of Lasix.

Hawthorne Derby

Adriano is a deserving favorite here off the furious run he produced last time out to win the Grade 3 Kent. The problem for Adriano Saturday is that the extreme lack of early speed in this spot could compromise his stretch kick. Adriano was caught in just such a situation when he was the even-money favorite two starts back in the Hall of Fame Stakes, and I believe he was affected by it. While he did run into traffic late in the Hall of Fame, I don't think he was going to win even with a cleaner trip. I think the slow pace muted his closing kick, and the same might happen here.

I'm going with Cherokee Triangle, who should be in position to get first run on likely pacesetter Mr. Mischief, and who is good enough to capitalize. Cherokee Mischief showed ability last year when he won the Sunday Silence Stakes by almost 11 lengths, a performance that made him fourth betting choice of 12 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, and regained the winning touch when put back on turf two starts ago. His most recent win in the Cliff Guilliams Memorial at Ellis was noteworthy because he ran much better than his win margin of a head would suggest. Cherokee Triangle was caught five wide on the first turn and three wide on the far turn, yet he still prevailed despite that considerable ground loss, and also being affected by an opponent who ducked out sharply late.

Perryville Stakes

I'm So Lucky is a likely winner in this spot, and I'm not going to pick against him. His two efforts at Saratoga - a blowout win at the overnight level and a willing third in the Gradeo1 King's Bishop against much tougher company than he meets Saturday - are of distinctly higher quality than what his opposition has produced lately. And considering that speed in sprints at Keeneland didn't do as well Wednesday as it did last weekend, I'm So Lucky's stalking style fits nicely. He will be the favorite, but I'm hoping that a big field with other reasonable betting options will help keep his odds in the playable range.

To spice things up, how about West Express as a longshot underneath in exotics? West Express, who returns to the surface on which he recorded his maiden win (beating Cherokee Artist, who went on to prove stakes class), was also 1 for 2 at Saratoga. After winning an entry-level allowance race early in the meet in fast time, he finished second in a strong overnight race on Travers Day to Aquino, who won in the manner of a surefire stakes horse.