09/02/2003 11:00PM

Slew of Grade 1's set the tone

Lady Tak, Whitmore's Conn (above), and Mineshaft are some of the stars likely to see stakes action at a Belmont fall meet featuring 14 Grade 1 races.

ELMONT, N.Y. - The carnival-like atmosphere of Saratoga may be lacking, but top-quality racing figures to be in high supply when Belmont Park's fall meet opens Friday.

Thirty-three days were not enough to pack in all the major races, so this year's meet has been expanded to 38 days, lasting through Oct. 26. First post is 1 p.m. daily, with the exception of closing weekend. General admission and general parking are free on Friday.

The Belmont meet features 41 stakes races worth $10.5 million. There are 14 Grade 1 races that will help determine the top contenders in many divisions for the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships when that event is held on Oct. 25 at Santa Anita in Southern California.

As was the case at Saratoga, top-quality horsemen from Kentucky - such as Steve Asmussen, Neil Howard, and Dale Romans - join the Belmont backstretch. The meet also usually provides several European-based horses pointing to the Breeders' Cup a chance to prep on American soil.

There are already six European-based horses on the grounds for this weekend's quartet of Grade 1 races, including the Aidan O'Brien-trained Hold that Tiger for Saturday's Woodward Stakes and the Dermot Weld-trained Dimitrova for Sunday's Garden City Breeders' Cup Handicap.

Mineshaft, North America's top handicap horse, is expected to see action twice at this meet, in Saturday's Woodward and the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup on Sept. 27. Victories in those two races would most likely send him to California as the favorite for the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic.

Saturday's Woodward shares billing with the Grade 1 Gazelle for 3-year-old fillies. The Gazelle features Test winner Lady Tak, Alabama winner Island Fashion, and Mother Goose and Coaching Club American Oaks winner Spoken Fur. The $500,000 Man o' War will include Sword Dancer winner Whitmore's Conn and Manhattan Handicap winner Denon.

Funny Cide and Empire Maker, who between them accounted for this year's Triple Crown, could return to action at this meet. Funny Cide has yet to resume training since an illness prevented him from running in the Travers. His connections have not made any plans for him, but one potential spot for him is the $250,000 Empire Classic for New York-breds on Oct. 18.

Empire Maker, meanwhile, has resumed training since being scratched from the Travers and is targeting the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup on Sept. 27 for his next start.

The Sept. 27 card also includes the Flower Bowl for fillies and mares on turf, the Turf Classic Invitational for males at 1 1/2 miles on turf, and the Vosburgh, which has been shortened from seven to 6 1/2 furlongs.

Two-year-olds have two Grade 1 opportunities in the Futurity on Sept. 14 and the Champagne on Oct. 4. Cuvee, the Saratoga Special winner, is expected to run in the Futurity, and Chapel Royal, beaten favorite in the Hopeful, should return in the Champagne.

Sightseek and Wild Spirit, the Bobby Frankel-trained older fillies who could challenge Azeri in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, should both run at the meet. Sightseek, who has won three straight Grade 1's, is being pointed to the Ruffian on Sept. 13. Wild Spirit, the Delaware Handicap winner and beaten favorite in the Personal Ensign, is targeting the Beldame on Oct. 4.

The stakes schedule begins with Friday's $100,000 General Douglas MacArthur Handicap for New York-bred colts and geldings. Well Fancied, who won this race last year, figures a short-priced favorite against seven rivals.

Well Fancied has won stakes races each of the last three times he's faced New York-breds. He has not run since winning the Evan Shipman Stakes by 4 1/4 lengths on July 20, closing day of Belmont's spring-summer meet. He won last year's MacArthur coming off a 61-day freshening.

"We targeted the MacArthur back in July and the only way I was going to run him at Saratoga was if the West Point came off the turf,'' trainer Richard Dutrow said. "This break won't hurt him.''

Well Fancied must carry 123 pounds, a six- to 12-pound concession to the field. Sherpa Guide was beaten 7 1/2 lengths by Well Fancied in the Evan Shipman and finished a close fourth in the Grade 3 Iselin Handicap last month at Monmouth. He is reunited with jockey Jose Santos and could be dangerous on a dry track.