08/09/2006 11:00PM

Speed a perplexing factor in Vanderbilt


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - On paper, there appears to be so much speed in Saturday's Grade 2, $200,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap that the race would seemingly set up for a closer. But the two primary closers - - don't elicit confidence, and the main speed horse, Afrashad, may not yet have reached his zenith.

The scenario provides handicappers an interesting dilemma despite there being just six runners in the Vanderbilt field. The Vanderbilt, run at six furlongs, is the first leg of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's National Pick 4 wager, which has a guaranteed pool of $500,000. The other races in the sequence are the Beverly D. from Arlington, the Sword Dancer from Saratoga, and the Arlington Million. All four races will be shown live during a two-hour ESPN telecast beginning at 4 p.m. Eastern.

, a son of Smoke Glacken, is undefeated in three career starts. He won his debut on turf in Europe as a 2-year-old and was away from the races for nearly two years. He returned on Belmont Stakes Day with a smashing first-level allowance win and then shipped to Monmouth to win a second-level allowance win.

"When he ran at Belmont he broke slow and ran kind of erratically down the lane," said Rick Mettee, an assistant trainer for Godolphin Racing, Afrashad's owner. "But at Monmouth he broke on top and just carried [Joe] Bravo around, just looked like a pro."

Afrashad figures to get early pressure from Bishop Court Hill, who won the Grade 1 Carter Handicap in April in front-running fashion.

"Even headed, I still think he's going to run well," Mettee said. "He's going to dig in and fight."

War Front is another horse with good early speed. He dueled with the swift Friendly Island before yielding late to Universal Form in the Grade 3 Deputy Minister Handicap at Gulfstream. After a foot bruise forced him to miss four months, he returned with a gutty second-place finish to Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Silver Train in the Grade 2 Tom Fool Handicap.

Allen Jerkens, the trainer of War Front, said his horse doesn't have to be part of the early pace.

"He got pushed back to third going into the far turn at Gulfstream and just got beat at the wire," said Jerkens, referring to a neck loss to Gaff in the Grade 3 Mr. Prospector Handicap.

, who breaks from post 5, will be reunited with Jose Santos, who rode him to three straight wins last fall.

Mass Media won the Grade 1 Forego over this track last September, his lone win from his last 11 starts. In two starts this year, he finished fourth in the Carter and third in the Metropolitan Handicap when he forced the pace while breaking from the rail.

"He's probably better going seven-eighths, but he needs to run," said Bobby Frankel. "This race will set him up for the Forego.''

Judiths Wild Rush finished behind War Front in the Deputy Minister when given the ideal setup. Thunder Touch needs a major form reversal to make an impact here. He ran the best race of his life over this track last summer.