02/25/2010 12:00AM

Setsuko the play in unproven field


NEW YORK - There are only four graded events on Saturday's national stakes schedule, and Gulfstream Park has three of them. The Grade 2, $150,000 Davona Dale Stakes ranks as the headliner at Gulfstream, but it is supported by a pair of Grade 3, $100,000 races, the Sabin Stakes on dirt and The Very One on turf.

The only other graded stakes on the calendar Saturday is Santa Anita's Grade 3, $150,000 Sham Stakes. The only other hundred-granders on the schedule are the John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park and the Borderland Derby at Sunland Park.

Sham Stakes

In a race that lacks an unrestricted stakes winner and that is primarily populated by horses still eligible to entry-level allowance races, Kettle River and The Program are sure to take a good bit of betting action here as they both come into this off a two-turn allowance victory over the track. Both, however, are vulnerable. Kettle River hasn't raced since the first week of the year and missed a week of training this month due to illness. I understand that he has to get moving if he is to have any chance of making one of the final round of Triple Crown preps in good order. That said, it's difficult under the circumstances to expect a top effort from Kettle River on Saturday.

As for The Program, I don't like the race he won last time out. In a slow-paced, slow final time affair, The Program just got up to beat Indian Firewater, who came back to be a soundly beaten second last week in the Turf Paradise Derby as the 1-2 favorite, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of only 71.

I did give a long look here to Nextdoorneighbor, who comes off a decisive maiden score going two turns and who figures to be prominent early in a race that doesn't have a lot of serious speed. But I'm concerned that the horse who was a clear second in Nextdoorneighbor's maiden win was 50-1 and then came back in his next start to finish eighth of 10. That horse, Viva Macho, also is entered in this race, for reasons I cannot begin to fathom.

I like Setsuko, who has displayed marked improvement since getting blinkers two starts ago. In his first start with the hood, Setsuko recorded a decisive maiden victory after lying reasonably close early off a slow pace, something he might be asked to do again Saturday. Most recently, Setsuko finished well into a slow pace to be a narrowly beaten second on turf. He now goes from turf back to synthetic, a move trainer Dick Mandella's horses happen to have very good success doing.

Wayward Lass Stakes

Don't Forget Gil earned her career-best Beyer of 90 over this track when she won the Florida Oaks last year. But with her best performance since being a second in an exceptionally weak renewal of the CCA Oaks and with her coming off a four-month layoff, if Don't Forget Gil wins, she'll beat me. Lady Alexander and Satans Quick Chick finished one-two in the Manatee Stakes last time out in the local stepping-stone to this race, and I think they are the right two horses this time, with Satans Quick Chick getting the edge.

Lady Alexander went wire to wire in the Manatee and will be as loose on the lead as she wants to be here. And, Lady Alexander won a stakes at The Meadowlands in her only attempt around two turns and at going this far. But Lady Alexander had the recency edge in the Manatee. Satans Quick Chick was coming off a three-month layoff, and as well as she finished in the Manatee, she has a right to finish even stronger this time, like she did when she upset Keeneland's Raven Run Stakes two starts back. Moreover, Satans Quick Chick is a more experienced two-turn performer. She has won half of her four main-track starts around two turns - one good for a field-best Beyer of 100 - and had very real excuses in the two routes she didn't win.

The Very One Stakes

I've been going with the "new face" approach in the female turf stakes at Gulfstream this winter, mainly because I'm skeptical about the quality of the established horses in this division there. This approach worked out well when Tottie won the Suwannee River but didn't work for me last week with Cherokee Queen in the Honey Fox. Then again, Honey Fox winner Wasted Tears qualified as a "new face." It was just tough to take her from an outside post.

In any event, I'm sticking with the new face theory here and I'm going with Morena. I could be taking this approach to an extreme this time, for Morena has never even run on turf before. But her U.S. class lines are far better than what anyone else in this race has to offer. All five of Morena's starts in this country were in graded stakes on the main track, and she was reasonably competitive in the last two. And as for Morena's turf ability, all I can say is if trainer Michael Matz is trying her on grass, that gets my complete attention. Matz certainly knows a turf horse when he sees one, as evidenced by his excellent numbers with horses making their first start on the surface.