02/11/2003 1:00AM

Subtle droppers merit edge


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Not all allowance races are created equal and knowing the subtle differences could help point out the winner of Thursday's $42,000 feature at Gulfstream Park, an optional claimer at about 1 1/8 miles on the turf.

Both Wertz and Monkey Puzzle ran against money conditioned allowance company in their previous starts. The two veteran grass performers are taking a significant drop in class into four-other-than optional claiming company on Thursday.

Wertz, who was claimed for $100,000 by trainer Mark Shuman earlier in the meet, faced a stakes-caliber field under money allowance conditions in his first try off the claim and finished a creditable sixth despite a rough trip. More comfortable on or near the lead than back in the pack, as he has been in his two most recent starts, Wertz on Thursday figures to set or contest the pace, along with Modigliani. He will be ridden by jockey Cornelio Velasquez on Thursday.

Jose Santos, who was aboard Wertz in his last start, has instead taken the call aboard Monkey Puzzle, a graded stakes winner who was beaten by only two lengths

by the likes of Della Francesca (a likely starter in Sunday's Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap) and Stokosky under money allowance conditions four weeks ago.

An honest pace and a clean trip might be all the 7-year-old Monkey Puzzle needs to win for the first time since the Grade 2 Hialeah Turf Cup at Gulfstream in the spring of 2000.

"His last race was very good even though he didn't have much pace to work with," said his trainer, Steve DiMauro. "He appears to be slowly rounding back to his form when he was younger.

"I gelded him in August and I think it took longer than usual to take effect since I did it so late in his career. He should run a big race, although I'm not sure a mile and one-eighth is long enough for him."

A third and more obvious class-dropper in the lineup is Mr. Pleasentfar, who has kept a steady diet of stakes and graded stakes company on the turf since winning a second-level allowance race at Calder in August 2001. Like Monkey Puzzle, Mr. Pleasentfar's last win came against graded stakes company, in the Grade 2 Red Smith Handicap at Aqueduct during the fall of 2001.

Better Talk Now, who has won his last three starts, all against weaker allowance competition, steps up in class off a game neck victory in a third-level allowance earlier in the meet.

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