06/28/2007 12:00AM

Small fields take shine off stakes


ELMONT, N.Y. - There are some exciting extravaganzas planned for this pre-holiday weekend - just don't plan to see any fireworks at Belmont Park, where Saturday's pair of prestigious Grade 1 stakes, the $400,000 Suburban Handicap and the $250,000 Mother Goose, both came up with short fields sorely lacking in star power.

As far as six-horse fields go, the Suburban is at least interesting from a handicapping perspective. First and foremost, bettors have to decide what to do with Fairbanks, who received a Beyer Speed Figure of 115 for winning the Tokyo City Handicap, an Invasor-like figure that is the fastest route race so far this year. In fact, Invasor swept all five of his Grade 1 stakes in the United States, but exceeded 115 only in the Breeders' Cup Classic (116), and otherwise put up figures in the range of 108-113, including a 111 in the 2006 Suburban.

Of course, the quality of horses and their performances goes beyond any number.

Invasor handled shipping and won those races at different tracks. He was versatile enough to press the pace or rally from far back, inside, or outside horses. He courageously overcame severe trouble. He showed fierce determination in stretch battles, and his ample endurance made him even tougher when stretched out from 1 1/8 miles to the Suburban's classic distance of 1 1/4 miles.

His 115 figure notwithstanding, Fairbanks has miles to go before he can be mentioned in the same breath as Invasor (or Mineshaft, or Skip Away, who also won recent Suburbans on their way to Horse of the Year titles).

Fairbanks was loose on the lead in the Tokyo City on Santa Anita's good old conventional dirt track. He has a 3-for-3 record when he leads at the first call, and a 1-for-5 record when he doesn't.

If Fairbanks were from a Brand-X barn, a layoff of three months would be worrisome, especially leading into his first attempt in a Grade 1. But Todd Pletcher-trained horses routinely win off such absences, and Fairbanks's last three wins came off layoffs.

As a $1.85 million yearling purchase, Fairbanks was always cut out to be a good one, and if he is indeed just coming into his own as a 4-year-old, his timing is impeccable. With Inavasor's retirement, the older handicap division is suddenly wide open.

"This is a horse that if he gets loose going a mile and a quarter, he could be dangerous," Pletcher said.

In the Mother Goose, Octave against Boca Grande, Bold Assurance, and Lady Joanne hardly compares with, say, the 1991 clash between Meadow Star and Lite Light.

Octave has been afflicted with the dreaded disease "seconditis" (which fortunately was not contagious to the rest of Pletcher's stable), but figures to get well at odds-on.

Since winning the Adirondack at Saratoga last August, Octave has been second in five consecutive Grade 1 or Grade 2 stakes, but with extenuating circumstances. The streak began with the Matron, in which her best Beyer jumped up by several lengths but she was still beaten a head; she ran against the grain of a rail bias and was steadied in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies; the Fair Grounds Oaks was her first start at 3; the Ashland was on Polytrack, and who the heck knows what to make of that; and she beat a dozen rivals in the Kentucky Oaks behind Rags to Riches (perhaps you've heard of her).

"It looks like she's coming out of a key race," said Pletcher, tongue firmly in cheek. "I think she's been a little bit unlucky not to have won a couple of the bigger races."

Octave wins this one if she runs back to her Kentucky Oaks, but contrarians point to that race as her only figure (97) appreciably better than the level Lady Joanne has established in winning 4 of her last 5 starts.

Unfortunately the first shipper at this meet for Carl Nafzger, Lady Joanne makes her third start of the year, following wins at Churchill Downs in a second-level allowance at six furlongs and the one-mile Dogwood. In the Dogwood, she was shuffled back a bit on the rail approaching the stretch, eased outside the leaders in midstretch, and finished strongly, with an equally strong gallop-out.