09/11/2002 11:00PM

Short fields in four stakes limit genuine win threats


ELMONT, N.Y. - There is no all-stakes pick four at Belmont Park Saturday, the main reason being that only 23 horses showed up.

Twenty-three. As in the size of the 1974 Kentucky Derby field. As in fewer than six runners per race. Heck, even on the scratch-riddled Travers Day card they got 25 horses in the four stakes, and that's including the off-the-turf Fourstardave and Ballston Spa.

If we're talking legitimate win threats, 23 whittles down to single digits in a hurry:

Floral Park: Gold Mover won this race last year, and paid $27.80 as the second-longest shot on the toteboard. She will be a much shorter price this time in what shapes up as a stretch duel with Carson Hollow.

The key with Gold Mover may be time off between starts, because she seems to thrive with her races spaced well apart. She ran big at Churchill, Belmont, and Calder in her last form cycle, including a win over Xtra Heat in the Princess Rooney, which at $400,000 is the richest sprint on the calendar for fillies and mares. For each of those races Gold Mover had at least five weeks off. But coming off a Beyer top of 112 in her win over Xtra Heat, she had only 20 days of rest for the Honorable Miss and finished far back while never comfortable in the Saratoga slop.

Trainer Mark Hennig is no doubt aware that Gold Mover's only other bad race this year was a fourth in the Barbara Fritchie on three weeks' rest, and he has given Gold Mover six weeks to recover from the Honorable Miss.

It's impossible to knock Carson Hollow, who is a nose shy of being unbeaten, but La Galerie has been quick enough to stay with Xtra Heat for a half-mile, and thus poses a serious tactical problem. Gold Mover, meanwhile, drew ideally outside the speed with master position rider Jerry Bailey.

Belmont Breeders' Cup: The field of six includes Good Boy Sam, who was also entered in an allowance race on Friday, when he failed to make the top three of the Daily Racing Form consensus. Also entered are Dr. Kashnikow and Spruce Run, who are winless this year from a dozen combined starts.

That leaves only Volponi and Startac, who were a length apart in last month's Sword Dancer at identical odds, and El Gran Papa, who was floundering earlier in the year until Bobby Frankel switched him to dirt.

The turnback to 1 1/8 miles may help Volponi more than it helps Startac, whose last victory, 13 months ago, came with a last desperate lunge in the 1 1/4-mile Secretariat.

If a line is drawn through Volponi's May 30 dirt race, in which he badly grabbed a quarter, his Beyer line since last October reads 108-113-108-105-110-109-106 at distances ranging from seven to 12 furlongs, and that points him out as a deserving favorite.

The Jerome: This one-turn mile has been won by the likes of Tom Fool, Bold Ruler, Kelso, and Carry Back, and more recently the champion sprinter Housebuster. Even the last renewal in 2000 (the race was canceled last year because of 9/11) was a comeback spot for Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus, not to mention Albert the Great, who came out of the race to score an upset in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Alas, this Jerome contains one graded stakes winner, Boston Common, who three races back won Monmouth Park's Grade 3 Jersey Shore at six furlongs, and then encored his shore score with gritty runner-up finishes at Saratoga in the six-furlong Amsterdam and the seven-furlong King's Bishop. In each of those races he got the best of ferocious pace duels through fast fractions, but all his work merely paved the way for perfect-trip winners to rally past him in the lane.

On the strength of his 106 Beyer in the King's Bishop, Boston Common may vie for favoritism with Puzzlement if enough bettors reason the stretch-out to a mile is manageable, especially since his last try at the distance came against household name War Emblem.

But a mile may be too far. Besides coming off only three weeks of rest since his new Beyer top, Boston Common has the quick, compact stride of a dyed-in-the-wool sprinter, and it is difficult to envision him rating along on an easy lead.

This scenario is very favorable for Puzzlement, a first-time Lasix user who, in his second start back from a layoff, gained nearly 10 lengths through the second half-mile of the Travers before flattening out.

Turning back to a mile and dropping eight pounds on a track he handled well in the Peter Pan, Puzzlement should be hard to deny late.

The Ruffian: Top to bottom it is the most competitive of the four stakes. The presence of the 1-2-3 finishers from the Ballerina, which featured a 44.11-second half-mile, as well as You, front-running winner of the Acorn here in June, ensures there will be no breathers in this 1 1/16-mile route.

The deep closer to take advantage of all this speed is Minister's Baby, whose last-out figure of 109 to win Ellis Park's Gardenia took on more meaning when runner-up Lakenheath came back on Labor Day to win the Arlington Matron over multiple stakes winner With Ability.

If Minister's Baby can avoid a bounce after consecutive Beyer tops, no small "if" with fillies, she will never have a better opportunity to win a Grade 1 race.