06/16/2005 12:00AM

Surf Cat's skill vs. Buzzards Bay's class


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - When the dazzling 3-year-old Surf Cat trounced older sprinters with a whopping 114 Beyer Speed Figure - running 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:14.44 - he earned the right to leap directly from a first-level allowance into a Hollywood Park graded stakes.

But when he stretches out for the first time Saturday in the Grade 3 Affirmed Handicap, Surf Cat rekindles a handicapping dilemma for which there is no simple answer - raw ability or established class?

The 1 1/16-mile Affirmed is a foregone conclusion if reproduces his May 15 sprint while racing a route of ground. "He's long-legged, elegant, and resembles the type that wants to go long," trainer Bruce Headley said.

however, starts as the class of the Affirmed. Upset winner of the Santa Anita Derby and proven over a distance, Buzzards Bay runs for the first time since a fifth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby.

The $100,000-added Affirmed is the prep for the Grade 2, $400,000 Swaps Stakes on July 9. Restricted to 3-year-olds, the Affirmed drew six runners - Buzzards Bay, the 122-pound highweight; Surf Cat and Dover Dere (116 each), Indian Ocean (115), Khyber Pass (114), and Sultry Bard (108).

Surf Cat, by Sir Cat, was sold in Kentucky at the Fasig-Tipton winter mixed sale for $25,000. His improvement has been extreme. After two seconds, he scored a decisive maiden win, and followed with a breakout N1X, winning by 4 1/2 lengths with a final sixteenth in 5.85 seconds while in full stride to the wire. "I've never had one run the last sixteenth like that, at that early stage," Headley said.

The excellence of that allowance win by Surf Cat was validated on June 11, when the runner-up, Greg's Gold, won by three lengths with a 107 Beyer. As for Surf Cat, Headley has since trained him long - his initial post-race work was seven furlongs, followed by one at a mile. "He had to be finishing pretty good to work that fast [1:38]," Headley said of the mile work.

Buzzards Bay, trained by Jeff Mullins, has worked well since returning from the Derby. A three-time winner from nine starts, Buzzards Bay will try to follow previous Affirmed winners who entered after being unplaced in the Kentucky Derby. They include Eye of the Tiger, Came Home, General Challenge, and Old Trieste.

Trainers Jay Robbins (Indian Ocean) and Vladimir Cerin (Khyber Pass) are each aiming for their third Affirmed victory. Robbins won with Tiznow (2000) and Raise a Stanza (1989); Cerin won with Boomzeeboom (2004) and Exploding Prospect (1989).