01/29/2004 12:00AM

Shaky favorites leave field open


NEW YORK - The $250,000 San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita is the richest and most important race in the nation Saturday, and it also boasts a tremendously appealing matchup between the speed of Hollywood Gold Cup and Cigar Mile winner Congaree, versus the late punch of Breeders' Cup Classic winner Pleasantly Perfect. The only problem with the San Antonio is, if Congaree doesn't win it at 3-5 or 4-5, Pleasantly Perfect will at 8-5. Yet, even though the San Antonio isn't a great betting race, it should still be something to see.

Elsewhere in the country Saturday, Gulfstream Park presents two $100,000 stakes on turf: the Canadian Turf Handicap and the Suwannee River Handicap for fillies and mares. Unfortunately, thunderstorms are in the forecast for south Florida, increasing the handicapping degree of difficulty.

The two other stakes with six-figure purses on Saturday's schedule are the $125,000 Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup Handicap and the $100,000 Brown Bess Handicap at Golden Gate Fields. Like Florida, New Orleans might get rain but the weather should be fine in the San Francisco area.

Here are my three spotlight stakes:

Canadian Turf Handicap

Millennium Dragon and Hard Buck are the horses to beat here, and attempting to beat them seems like the thing to do, since neither is terribly imposing. Millennium Dragon did win the Appleton Handicap early in the meet, but he walked on the lead that day, and I have always thought that anything beyond a mile for him was a serious stretch. As for Hard Buck, he is 3 for 3 in this country, but he had perfect trips in each race and did not beat the greatest of company.

I'm going with French Charmer, a stretch-runner who was seriously compromised by the slow pace in the Appleton, but who still passed six opponents in the final furlong to finish fourth. That effort suggests that French Charmer, who won 5 of 7 starts last year, is rounding back to a top performance. And should it rain, that wouldn't bother French Charmer, as 2 of his 5 victories last year came over wet turf courses, one in a stakes similar to this at Laurel.

Brown Bess Handicap

Because the pace in turf races is usually softer than it is in dirt races, and because turf is a more forgiving surface than dirt, it is easier for turf horses to deliver top performances off layoffs than it is for dirt horses. But trainer Ben Cecil's statistics with horses coming off the kind of October layoff that his Red Rioja brings into this race are outstanding. Even a blind bet on such Cecil-trained horses over the last couple of years would have resulted in a profit of $5.05 for every $2 wagered, but that is just one of the reasons why Red Rioja is the pick.

Red Rioja also showed solid form in Southern California last fall. In her most recent start Oct. 15 at Santa Anita, she was a sharp second to the capable mare Garden in the Rain, a recent runner-up to the top class Megahertz, while shading 23 seconds for her last quarter-mile. Any horse who can come home that fast is okay with me, and Red Rioja should be too strong for this group in the stretch.

King Cotton Stakes

The sprint division at Oaklawn Park is always an entertaining group, and, judging from the field in this race, things should be no different this year. You could make a case for at least 5 of the 10 entered in this one, but the one I'll make a case for is Skeet.

Skeet won 2 of his last 3 starts when facing a tough bunch of turf sprinters in Chicago and Kentucky and was a narrowly beaten second in the loss. Skeet goes turf to dirt here, but he has two eye-catching bullet workouts over the Oaklawn surface this month, and he won the last time he went turf to dirt. Moreover, the Bob Holthus barn, which is off to a fast start at the meet, sports a positive return on investment and a high success rate when it moves its horses from turf to dirt like it is doing here with Skeet.