08/08/2001 11:00PM

Spread your bets widely in Sword Dancer

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - During this, the third weekend at Saratoga, if you have any kind of personal business in the real world that needs tending to, it is perfectly acceptable to skip town.

Unfortunately for me, the little girl next door who practically raised my kids is all grown up now, and she picked last Saturday to get married. As a result, I was forced to use my Get-Out-of-Saratoga Free card a week earlier than usual. This turned out to be just as well because I would have found Free of Love at

29-1 in the Jim Dandy irresistible, but an exacta saver underneath Scorpion never would have occurred to me.

That, and there was Grey Goose vodka at the open bar.

The upshot of all this is that while I remember little from last weekend, I am here for Saturday's Sword Dancer Invitational Handicap and Sunday's Ballston Spa Breeders' Cup Handicap, two turf stakes that have an awful lot of syllables considering the impact they have in their respective divisions, which is virtually none.

The Sword Dancer is a nice enough race that carries Grade 1 status and a $500,000 purse, but it's hard to get excited about it when the Arlington Million is right around the corner. And the 1 1/16-mile Ballston Spa for older fillies and mares is basically an encore presentation of the longer Glens Falls Handicap, also for females on the grass, which for some reason is run just two days beforehand.

Of course, anybody who had John's Call when he won last year's renewal by a pole at 7-1 (as part of the field) probably holds the Sword Dancer in considerably higher esteem. But since the now legendary gelding made Friday's Daily Racing Form cover wearing that cool mask and eye shades, he will probably vie for favoritism despite his advanced age.

John's Call's main competition is King Cugat, who, after earning a Beyer of 114 to win the Bowling Green Handicap, is quite obviously a good horse. King Cugat, however, is also an unpalatable betting proposition at a short price in Saturday's three-turn marathon, because of his propensity for finding trouble and/or wide trips, along with his lack of experience at 1 1/2 miles.

The alternatives fail to get the pulse racing. They include Honor Glide, the 1999 Sword Dancer winner, who was a horrible seventh in the U.N. Handicap last out; Williams News, who was a distant fourth in this race last year despite the fact that he arrived in sharper form; Ela Athena, the European mare who won't catch Americans by surprise like she did last fall; and With Anticipation, who will take money simply because his trainer is Jonathan Sheppard.

To make things more difficult, course conditions are uncertain at this writing. The heat wave that gripped Saratoga during midweek - "The heat is driving all these horses nuts," said John's Call's trainer, Tom Voss - was expected to break sometime Friday, when a cold front was to move through the area. As of Thursday afternoon, forecasts for Saturday ranged from a few scattered showers, all the way to bench-moving thunderstorms complete with golfball-sized hail. This is par for the course in the foothills of the Adirondacks, where no one really has any idea what the weather will be like 20 minutes from now, much less a day or two in advance.

My pick four plan is to somehow try and get by the Sword Dancer still intact, depending on how my key horses have done in the first two legs. If two keys have won, I would like to be alive with at least half the field.

Sometimes it pays to watch the board

Grass racing is the focus this weekend, but the true essence of Saratoga is 2-year-olds.

Watching the tote board in these maiden dashes can sometimes give an inkling of who's "live," and it doesn't necessarily have to mean that a horse is taking money hand over fist. Consider the odds at different intervals from Thursday's third race, a six-furlong sprint for a dozen New York-breds:

MORNING

HORSELINE20 MTP10 MTP 2 MTP

My Legal Alien9-210-112-118-1

Jumbo Jet15-119-121-132-1

Lost In The Woods12-127-130-137-1

Star Goldminer6-111-111-110-1

Brass Tango6-113-113-113-1

Hey Brother5-110-111-111-1

Smokieisabandit15-19-59-55-2

Ivars Blues6-15-1 6-18-1

Speedy Mohama15-112-121-143-1

Levendis7-213-116-115-1

Hamanjiz20-199-185-199-1

Gotham Limited8-59-14-18-5

Six were first-time starters, six had raced once. The hot horse early in the betting was Smokieisabandit, from Finger Lakes-based connections who had just put over a winning firster the day before.

Gotham Limited, in from the also-eligible list and trained by Scott Lake, had finished a close second in his Belmont debut, earning far and away the best Beyer. After opening way above his morning-line odds, he was bet steadily thereafter.

While Gotham Limited was taking all that cash, the odds on everyone except Star Goldminer, Brass Tango, and Hey Brother went up. Hey Brother had already run, having shown speed and faded in his debut to earn a 31 Beyer.

Star Goldminer and Brass Tango were first-time starters, and their prices held firm during all that Gotham Limited action. Consistent odds throughout the betting period become more meaningful when at the same time someone like Gotham Limited is dropping with every flash.

In the race Smokieisabandit, front bandages and all, survived through a slow final quarter to hold off a "hidden" live firster, Star Goldminer. The exacta linking a 5-2 second choice over a subtly bet newcomer ridden by the red-hot John Velazquez paid a generous $96.