07/16/2003 12:00AM

Sheppard keeps the faith

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Jonathan Sheppard, the Hall of Fame trainer who has developed so many outstanding horses both on the flat and over jumps, is preparing an audacious bid at Saratoga next month. He will attempt to post a rare third consecutive victory in the Grade 1 $500,000 Sword Dancer Handicap at 1 1/2 miles on the turf with 8-year-old With Anticipation.

With Anticipation, a Relaunch gelding with earnings of more than $2.6 million, has enjoyed a long and distinguished career with 15 victories from 47 starts. But he is past his prime, or so his three races this season have suggested. He finished fifth in the Woodford Reserve at Churchill Downs, was 10th in a field of 11 in the Manhattan Handicap at Belmont Park, and was seventh in the recent United Nations Handicap at Monmouth Park.

"He is training very well," Sheppard says. "He is healthy and sound and very sharp in his preparation. Circumstances were against him in his three races this year. The Woodford Reserve was probably a little short for him at a mile and an eighth and I was probably a bit conservative in my instructions to Pat Day. I said he might need the race and cautioned not to make too much use of him early. Thus he was deep in the pack. He finished well.

"In the Manhattan he caught one or the deepest courses I've ever seen. He couldn't get untracked and just galloped around. In the United Nations he was just off the pace. When it quickened, he was boxed in and had no place to go. Then, at the head of the stretch, he was squeezed between two horses. He didn't have the best of trips."

Sheppard feels that with a little racing luck, With Anticipation can win the Sword Dancer despite his age.

"Tommy Voss won the Sword Dancer with John's Call when he was 9," Sheppard recalled, "and Ninepins was 13 when he won the New York Turf Writers Cup. One of the reasons older jumpers can do well is that they can retain their stamina, even though they may lose much of their speed. Among humans, marathoners are generally older while sprinters are generally young."

Promotions galore at Saratoga

Promotions are an integral part of the Saratoga scene because the public response is so positive. When designer T-shirts are the giveaway item, for example the track may attract as many as 50,000. For the season which opens next Wednesday, the promotion schedule gets under way at its earliest date.

"We're going with a giveaway on Thursday," said Bill Nader, New York Racing Association vice president for marketing. "We drew 30,000 for our opening last summer, and if the weather is good, we should do as well this year. But the second day of the meeting is usually weak so we are offering an Edgar Prado bobblehead doll in honor of the leading jockey at last summer's meeting with 54 winners."

Because the "Seabiscuit" film is set for general release on Friday, NYRA will mark the occasion on Sunday with the Seabiscuit Saratoga collectible mug.

The T-shirt giveaway on the second Sunday will honor Native Dancer, who came to Saratoga 50 years ago to win the 1953 Travers by more than five lengths.

A new item on the promotional menu this season is the Saratoga wall clock, which is scheduled for Aug. 17.

The pick four has become one of the most popular promotions, according to Nader, who points out that it now outhandles the pick six. Saratoga will offer a $500,000 guaranteed pick four every Saturday and a $1 million guaranteed pick four on Travers Day.

Another aspect of NYRA's promotional program is the luxury box arrangement set up at trackside for the first time this year. A preview of the facilities will be offered on Sunday at the annual Open House. Initially, the luxury boxes will be offered on a meeting and three-day weekend basis. If any vacancies remain, they will be sold on a daily basis.

"The best promotion of all," says Nader "is the fine racing and the Saratoga ambience."