09/09/2004 12:00AM

Stay Forever gets favorable setup

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NEW YORK - There are still seven weeks until Breeders' Cup Day at Lone Star Park, but there will be a distinct Breeders' Cup atmosphere at Belmont Park on Saturday, when three Grade 1 events will be run.

All three of these races - the $500,000 Woodward, the $500,000 Man o' War, and the $250,000 Gazelle Handicap - can be used as springboards to Breeders' Cup events.

There are only two other graded stakes in the United States on Saturday: the Endine Handicap at Delaware Park and Calder's rescheduled Miami Mile Breeders' Cup Handicap. Both are Grade 3 races.

Here are my spotlight stakes picks, in order of preference:

Miami Mile

Despite being a mare against males, I like Stay Forever in this race. Stay Forever is repeating a pattern that resulted in the first of her three wins this year in that she is returning from a two-month layoff, and cutting back to a distance of one mile. And it is important to note that Stay Forever had vastly better form prior to her most recent break than she had going into her last one. Before finishing second to Wonder Again, the best turf mare in the East, in the New York Handicap in her last appearance, Stay Forever won the Mint Julep and Hollywood Wildcat Breeders' Cup. The Wildcat win gave her an eye-catching record of six victories from nine starts over the course she is to compete on Saturday.

Equally important is that this race looks like it will set up for Stay Forever. There is a lot of speed on paper, and although some of the speed horses look like they were entered in the hopes that the race will be rained off the turf - but without the official designation of being "main track only" entrants - there is still enough gas in the field to set the race up for Stay Forever's potent late kick.

Wire Bound also merits respect here. Wire Bound returns from a freshening after failing to handle off going and a longer distance in his last start, but was a revelation winning his previous two starts over this turf course.

Man o' War

Magistretti ran perhaps his best race of the year when third in the Arlington Million in his North American debut, and is the selection.

Magistretti was beaten only 2 1/2 lengths for it all against a tougher field at Arlington, and was moving at the finish like a horse wanting more distance, which he gets Saturday. His Million performance is taken as a signal of a return to the form that saw him finish second to the formidable Falbrav last year.

Moreover, Magistretti figures to get a favorable pace to allow him to make best use of his late kick. King's Drama looks to be in this race to keep Balto Star honest early and set the table for entrymate Epalo, but he may set the table for others as well.

Gazelle

Stellar Jayne can certainly win this, as she has turned in four straight strong efforts. But Stellar Jayne has also had a lot of hard races in a relatively short period of time, and I'm going against her at unappealing odds.

I'm going with Magical Illusion. Magical Illusion won big two starts back, but then finished 7 1/2 lengths behind Stellar Jayne for second in the Coaching Club American Oaks. That was her first experience on a wet track, however, and she may not have performed up to her true abilities. Her Saratoga-based outfit did not run her back there in the Alabama, which is intriguing, but instead waited for this spot, and the barn boasts a high strike rate with such layoffs.