09/05/2002 12:00AM

Skipping worth an investment

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From an historical standpoint, the most important stakes race this weekend is Saturday's $500,000 Woodward at Belmont Park. But Lido Palace at 3-5 or less against five modest opponents in this Woodward doesn't exactly make you want to take the rubber band off the bankroll.

Likewise, Saturday's $300,000 Del Mar Derby, at this point, looks troubling from a betting perspective. The Del Mar Derby could still turn out to be a good betting race, but a rare forecast of thunderstorms in the Del Mar area presents a wild card for this turf event that I don't want to deal with.

The other two big races at Belmont on Saturday, however, the $500,000 Man o' War Stakes and the $250,000 Gazelle Handicap, and Sunday's $1 million Atto Mile at Woodbine, do look like the kind of races I want to get involved in.

Man o' War

It may be folly to go against With Anticipation, who will deservedly be favored to win the Man o' War for the second year in a row, just as he finished first for the second year in a row in the Sword Dancer and United Nations handicaps in his last two starts. But no one likes a chalk-eating coward, so I'll take a shot with Skipping.

Trainer Bobby Frankel has recently been highly complimentary of Skipping. He has suggested Skipping may be better than Denon, to whom Skipping finished a close third in the Whittingham Memorial in his last start, and who ran With Anticipation to photos in the U.N. and Sword Dancer. In fact, right after he sent out America's top turf horse, Beat Hollow, to win the Arlington Million, Frankel, who is not given to hyperbole, said Skipping may be every bit as good as Beat Hollow. That's good enough for me.

Still, With Anticipation will take a lot to beat, because he will sit the garden trip stalking the lead of Balto Star, who will likely find the 1 3/8 miles well beyond his scope. But, if you respect With Anticipation (and I do), then you should also throw in Man From Wicklow, who was beaten only two lengths in the Sword Dancer at 47-1 after clipping heels and stumbling early, and then rallying wide.

Gazelle Handicap

I've been a big Bella Bellucci fan since her third-place finish last fall in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. But she missed her two big midseason goals this year - the Mother Goose and Alabama - for various reasons, and with questions surrounding her now, her odds Saturday will be too low to accept.

Imperial Gesture ran a monstrous race winning an allowance off a layoff at Saratoga, and it wouldn't surprise me if she won this, but I'm going with Take Charge Lady, even though she hasn't started since May 25.

Kenny McPeek, the trainer of Take Charge Lady, showed what he can do with a good horse off a layoff when he brought Repent back from a 4 1/2-month absence to narrowly miss in the Travers. Moreover, Take Charge Lady has recently been flattered by the company she kept before she went away. Farda Amiga, who handed Take Charge Lady her only loss from five starts this year in the Kentucky Oaks, came back to win the Alabama. Allamerican Bertie, third behind Take Charge Lady in the Dogwood Stakes, came back to romp in the Delaware Oaks and narrowly miss in the Alabama.

Atto Mile

The comparative weakness of the North American turf division was made clear in the Arlington Million, when some European horses who could be characterized as moderate at best came very close to winning. The Atto Mile attracted a legitimately good European horse in Noverre, and I think he will have his way with this field.

Two and three starts back, Noverre finished second to the two best milers in Europe, Rock of Gibraltar and Keltos. He then underscored just how sharp he is last time out when, despite going a distance (a little more than 1 1/4 miles) that is farther than he prefers, he finished right behind two of Europe's best older horses, Nayef and Golan.

A potential upsetter is Touch of the Blues, who ran his best race since he won the Maker's Mark Mile in April last month in the Wickerr at Del Mar. Despite traffic Touch of the Blues flew home with a sub-23-second final quarter mile to be second. There is plenty of speed Sunday to set up his late run.