08/08/2006 12:00AM

Sneak preview of Alabama

Adam Coglianese / NYRA
Bushfire is at the top of the 3-year-old filly division with victories in the Ashland, Acorn, and Mother Goose, all Grade 1 races.

Allen Jerkens, who often exercises patience in spotting his horses, is squarely on the fence regarding the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 19 regarding his Test Stakes winner Swap Fliparoo.

After his filly came through with her winning rally along the rail in the seven-furlong Test, trainer Allen Jerkens said he might stretch the improving Grade 1 winner out to nine furlongs at Belmont Park, where such races are contested around one turn. But, he has since softened his stance and said that she is under consideration to try 10 furlongs in the two-turn Alabama.

Jerkens has won the Alabama three times, with November Snow in 1992, Sky Beauty in 1993, and Society Selection in 2004.

Of the others who ran in the seven-furlong Test, none seemed to gain enough from the race to pose a threat at the 1 1/4-mile Alabama distance. That, along with the overall inconsistency displayed by most of the leading 3-year-old fillies this year, may leave the Alabama somewhat lighter in quality than usual.

Frankly, the 3-year-old fillies of 2006 seem to be a division in search of reliable depth. To date only Bushfire has acted the part of a true Grade 1 type, winning the Ashland at Keeneland and taking both the Acorn and Mother Goose at Belmont. Meanwhile, most of the top-rated 2-year-old fillies of 2005 have struggled with physical issues while trying to get into the flow of the current season.

Folklore, the 2-year-old filly champion of 2005, is out of training. Wild Fit, second to Folklore in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, has failed to recover that level of form in limited starts this year and was scratched from the Test on race day by her new trainer, Patrick Biancone. At the bottom line, Wild Fit may or may not reach her 2005 form this summer, but Biancone seems convinced that she probably is best suited to one-turn races at seven furlongs to 1 1/8 miles, rather than 10-furlong events around two turns.

Balance, a double winner of Grade 1 stakes at Santa Anita during the winter, failed to hold her form when shipped to Kentucky for the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs. How well Balance has been doing since she left Kentucky remains a mystery to all but her connections.

Lemons Forever, a complete outsider when she won the Kentucky Oaks in May with a last-to-first run through the stretch, has not come close to replicating that performance in two subsequent starts. On the other hand, at least she has demonstrated a willingness to perform well at a route distance when in the mood.

The same is not true for Joint Effort, winner of the La Troienne at 7 1/2 furlongs on Kentucky Derby Day and the Dogwood Stakes at one mile in June, also at Churchill. In her only two career starts at one mile or longer, Joint Effort finished a weak third in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile Fillies at Turfway last September and a distant seventh in the 1 1/8-mile Mother Goose.

Ready to Please, a good third to Bushfire in the Mother Goose and winner of the 1 1/16-mile Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn in April, looked so bad while finishing far back in the Test that she probably will need trainer Todd Pletcher's best effort to recapture her form later this year.

Adieu, also trained by Pletcher and winner of the Spinaway Stakes at Saratoga last summer, might be the savior of the division if she can use her winning performance in the Delaware Oaks last month as a springboard to a winning effort in the Alabama. At the very least Adieu will come to the Alabama moving forward with sufficient rest between starts and a relatively depleted division to beat.

One of her main foes is likely to be Wonder Lady Anne L, a filly who never seemed to be pure Grade 1, but did finish second in the Grade 2 Bonnie Miss at Gulfstream in March and second in the 1 1/16-mile Susan's Girl Stakes at Delaware Park in June before she won the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks at the Alabama distance last month.

The horse that defeated Wonder Lady Anne L in the Bonnie Miss at Gulfstream was the Allen Jerkens-trained Teammate, a front-running specialist with erratic form, but a filly who has proven to be dangerous in two-turn races when able to secure a comfortable early lead.

That gives Jerkens perhaps a second chance to post still another of his famous upsets in this classic mid-summer race that has been run since 1879.

That notwithstanding, there is one additional filly with a Hall of Fame trainer worth keeping in mind as a logical alternative to Adieu. Her name is Pine Island. While this lean, long striding miss has not yet won a stakes in a limited career, she did look good finishing second in the Mother Goose and repeated that impression when she closed ground late for second in Wonder Lady Anne L's Coaching Club American Oaks on July 22.

Trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, Pine Island has not run a bad race in her four career starts and did win a pair of route races around two turns on the turf to go with her stretch-running second-place finishes in those two Grade 1 stakes at nine and 10 furlongs at Belmont. McGaughey also is a previous winner of this race, having trained Heavenly Prize to victory in 1994.

Putting this all together suggests that Bushfire, Adieu, and Wonder Lady Anne may meet their match in Pine Island, who has been pointed to the Alabama since the Phipps family turned her over to McGaughey last year.