08/25/2006 12:00AM

Spa Stakes Play for Friday


Friday's featured Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga looks a lot like Saturday's Travers. Both races have short fields going a mile and a quarter. Today, it's Pletcher's Fleet Indian who appears a likely winner at 3-5 with only Albertrani's Balletto a candidate for an upset at 2-1 or 5-2. Tomorrow, it's Albertrani's Bernardini 3-5 in a Travers where Pletcher's Bluegrass Cat is the only plausible alternative. Thank goodness for multirace wagering to save us from a dreary choice between $3.20 and $6.20.

Tomorrow I'll probably emphasize Bernardini over Bluegrass Cat but today I'm using the two favorites in equal strength because I'm not as sold on Fleet Indian as I am on the Travers favorite. Obviously she's blossomed into a very good racemare as a 5-year-old, winning her last three starts by a combined 26 lengths with a trio of triple-digit Beyers. Still, she was odds-on against overmatched non-entities in those races. She has never met a rival of Balletto's quality, and the difference between them might be smaller than it looks on paper.

My plan is to try to crunch some late pick-threes because I don't think there are that many contenders in the two races bookending the Personal Ensign. In the eighth, the $70k Equalize Stakes, I think many bettors will be casting a wide net where they don't really need to. Manchu Prince(6) may simply be a notch better than these and there should be sufficient pace among Title, Express News and Tahoe Warrior - all drawn outside - to set up his strong late run. In case he hits traffic, I'll back up only with the closers Storm Treasure(2) and River City Rebel(4).

The ninth is one of those awful New York-bred maiden turf races where it seems like anything can happen, but this particular rendition doesn't really have any appealing oddballs or angles. I think the winner comes from the quartet of Elder Skateman (2), Meeses Two Pieces (5), Heights (6) and Distinctive Sandy(9).

So the play for each $40 unit goes:

$3 pick-three partwheel: 6/1,5/1,5,6,9= $24

$1 pick-three partwheel: 2,4/1,5/1,5,6,9= $16

I'm sorely tempted to turn this into a pick-four given its compactness, but I don't like hinging my results on a race like the seventh, a statebred 2-year-old turf route with five firsters and five who have been trounced on the dirt. There's one super-obvious potential killer in Grand Merger, an A.P. Indy-Immerse filly who's a full sister to Stephen Got Even and attracted Prado for her debut. She could well be 6-5. You could do worse then to preface the pick-threes above with a single of Grand Merger in small pick-fours, which would double or triple the value of pick-threes you were going to play anyway if she wins, while giving you the opportunity to start over if she tanks:

$3 pick-four partwheel: 4/6/1,5/1,5,6,9= $24

$1 pick-four partwheel: 4/2,4/1,5/1,5,6,9= $16