07/13/2007 12:00AM

Shakis, Sunriver, then the rest


ELMONT, N.Y. - The $150,000 Bowling Green Handicap Sunday at Belmont Park boils down to Shakis and Sunriver.

If those two run to expectations, it will be a challenging situation for the other six entrants in the Grade 2 feature at 1 3/8 miles.

Todd Pletcher sends out Sunriver, who has found new life on the turf. Shakis, a 7-year-old with a wealth of international experience, has thrived since joining the Kiaran McLaughlin barn in the spring.

McLaughlin opted to skip the Grade 1 United Nations Stakes last weekend at Monmouth Park, where the Pletcher duo of English Channel and the mare Honey Ryder finished one-two.

There was no avoiding Pletcher here. "Todd is probably going to be a handful again with Sunriver," McLaughlin said. "I would think he's the horse to beat, and we're the horse for him to beat."

Shakis passed an important class test last time out in the Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap at Belmont. He finished a head behind Better Talk Now, the winner, and was nosed out of second by English Channel. The Manhattan was only his second U.S. start after a 23-race career in Europe and Dubai for the Shadwell Stable runner.

"Doug Watson is my ex-assistant who took over the yard in Dubai where I was," McLaughlin said. "He's a very close friend, and he suggested sending the horse over here. He thought he would do well. He's been spot-on, so far. The distance is a little bit of question mark, but we'll find out Sunday."

Alan Garcia has the return call to ride.

Distance should not be an issue for Sunriver, who was third last year in the Belmont Stakes. He had a solid 3-year-old season, including a win in Belmont's Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes.

For reasons Pletcher can't comprehend, Sunriver turned in subpar efforts in his two dirt races earlier this year. Looking for an answer, Pletcher worked the colt on the turf on June 3, and the transformation was instantaneous.

"It was a huge turnaround," Pletcher said. "The horse worked unbelievably well on the grass, and he ran extremely well.

His turf debut was a powerful allowance victory here on June 7 that produced a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 105.

With John Velazquez riding at Delaware Park, Garrett Gomez will be aboard Sunriver for the first time.

Completing the field are Trippi's Storm, Dreadnaught, Barastraight, Fishy Advice, Silver Whistle, and Interpatation.