06/14/2006 11:00PM

Stephen Foster card saves best for last

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - If you aren't going to be at Churchill Downs on Saturday, you had better be somewhere where you can get your bets down. The quality of the races is impressive. The last six races on the 11-race card are graded stakes, including the Grade 1 Stephen Foster.

A quick check of the recent track bias trends is in order before looking at the individual stakes races. I analyzed the six cards run from June 7 through June 14. The main track favored horses with tactical speed, with 24 of the 38 races won by horses in the front half of the field at the first call. But early speed was only moderately successful, with 13 percent of the first-call leaders prevailing, so any contender who figures to be within striking distance during the first part deserves consideration on the dirt.

There was an interesting mix of results on the grass. Five of the 11 races were won by the first-call leader, with another winner coming from second. The other five races were won by closers who rallied from the rear half of the pack. Which is the best way to go? I will let an analysis of the pace scenario in each turf race guide me.

Jefferson Cup

The sixth race is the Grade 2 Jefferson Cup, at 1 1/8 miles on the turf. Although there are only seven horses in the field, a case can be made for each of them. On paper, I am inclined to give the edge to Brilliant, who owns a 7-3-3-1 record and is unbeaten in two turf starts, both on this course. This will be his first stakes appearance.

Storm Treasure, who finished 11th in the Kentucky Derby, and Yate's Black Cat, who was a close second in the Forerunner at Keeneland, would be no surprise. However, there is another angle to this race. The fractions figure to be mild. The horse most likely to capitalize on that pace scenario is Tahoe Warrior, who has the most natural early speed. The catch is that he has been alternating between good and bad races in his recent starts. If he runs his best race he can take this field all the way. Insist on a square price.

Northern Dancer

The Grade 3 Northern Dancer Breeders' Cup at 1 1/16 miles is the seventh. I am willing to throw out Private Vow's 15th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. If you rate him on his win at Churchill in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club last year and on his third behind Lawyer Ron and Steppenwolfer in the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby, he is the one they will have to beat.

High Cotton will attract good betting support based on his 5 1/2-length win with a 103 Beyer in the Sir Barton and because he is a member of the Pletcher barn. A repeat of that last race would win this race comfortably, but the possibility of a bounce must be considered. Circle the World, the other member of the Pletcher barn, is 2 for 2 and deserves a look as he stretches out in his third start.

Regret

The Grade 3 Regret, at 1 1/8 miles on the turf, is the eighth race, the first leg of the late pick four. Lady of Venice rallied from just off the pace to win the Appalachian at Keeneland in her first U.S. start. She has trained well at Turfway since that win and deserves top billing. The improving Magnificent Song has won both of her starts since returning from a freshening April 7 and has more early and tactical speed than she showed last time. Fiery Dancer is on a roll now, with 3 wins and 2 second-place finishes from her last 5 starts. Her early and tactical speed will help. May Night is a contender who will have to hope that speed isn't sticking on the grass. I will use all four in the pick four.

Fleur de Lis

The ninth race, the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Handicap, can probably be covered by going two deep. Happy Ticket has won 11 of 16 career starts, with four second-place finishes. She lost by a neck at low odds in each of her last two races, then took two months off. She owns the best Beyers and looms as the one to beat. The catch is that she might be a little rusty following the two-month break. The other prime contender is Oonagh Maccool. She has won 5 of 6 career races and is in good form, with victories in all three of her races this year, including a couple of Grade 2's. I will give her the slight edge as my top pick based on her strong form, but I will use both of them in the pick four.

Stephen Foster

The Foster is the 10th race. Love of Money should be the speed of the speed. If that style is sticking better than it has in recent days, he will be formidable. If not, Buzzards Bay is versatile enough to track him and can slip past him late. A fast pace should set the table for the closing kick of Brass Hat if he is none the worse for wear as he makes his first start since his return from Dubai. The concern is that regression is possible following that long journey. I'll give the edge to Buzzards Bay, with Love of Money and Brass Hat rounding out my pick four selections.

Mint Julep

The pick four concludes with the Mint Julep Handicap. I will spread out in this race. My top pick is My Typhoon, who won the Grade 2 Mrs. Revere here last year. Her tactical speed will boost her chances. I will also include Rich in Spirit, More Than Promised, Louve Royale, Sky High Flyer, and Ella Belle, who is interesting as the potential early speed and because of her 411 turf Tomlinson as she makes her first start on the grass.

The cost of this $1 pick four ticket is $144. Those looking to pare it down can roll the dice and cut the cost to $72 by singling either Oonagh Maccool or Happy Ticket in the ninth race.