11/01/2007 12:00AM

Taking a stand against Lava Man

EmailNEW YORK - With the Breeders' Cup now behind us, it is understandable if stakes aficionados are dealing with a bit of a letdown. But Saturday is a good day to get right back into the ring.

California Cup Classic Handicap

It wasn't too long ago when Lava Man could have won this race spotting this field a half-mile head start. But even taking into account his victory in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup last June, Lava Man seems to have lost quite a bit off his fastball since his unsuccessful trip to Dubai early in the year. He still might be able to win this race on memory, and he is taking a substantial class drop by moving into California-bred competition, which ensures he will be a strong favorite. But Lava Man is the kind of favorite worth taking a stand against.

I'm going with Cheroot, who is expected to improve big time off a seventh in his recent return to action. Of course, he'll have to if he has any shot of winning this. But that was Cheroot's first start in nine months, he showed good enough early speed to have benefited from the outing, and three purposeful workouts since suggest he is primed to snap back into top form. And the good Cheroot would be good enough. He ran very well when a narrowly beaten second in this race last year, and he followed with a solid victory in the On Trust Handicap at Hollywood Park, a race that showed Cheroot can handle a synthetic surface very similar to the one this event will be run over.

Chilukki Stakes

Rolling Sea found the competition in the Grade 1 Spinster most recently to be too tough for her, and will find this race to be a much better fit from a class standpoint. Where this race might not be a good fit for Rolling Sea is that it is a one-turn race. Rolling Sea has competed in nothing but two-turn races for the longest time, and the different, quicker pace dynamics in even a one-turn mile like this could make her vulnerable.

Lady Belsara is the play to go wire to wire. Lady Belsara was a tired fifth last time out in the Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes, but she was compromised by two factors in that race. First, she was making her first start in nearly four months. Even more importantly, the TCA Stakes was run early in the Keeneland meet, when inside speed horses were routinely victimized by an outside closer's bias. Two starts back, however, Lady Belsara was very game winning the Chicago Handicap. She controlled the pace that day, and she projects to be in the same position Saturday over a track more kind to speed horses.

California Cup Mile Handicap

On first glance, there doesn't seem to be a lot of difference in terms of ability among Jack's Wild, Epic Power, and Now Victory, who are all logical contenders here. But the factor that sets Jack's Wild apart, and the reason why I like him, is the one-mile distance.

If you isolate Jack's Wild's last three outings at this one-mile distance, you'll find a win over the course last March in the Crystal Waters Handicap and a decisive score two starts back over Epic Power and Now Victory in the California Turf Championship at Bay Meadows. Jack's Wild's only other recent attempt at one mile came in between those wins and was a fourth in the Korbel Handicap, in which he finished behind both Epic Power and Now Victory. But Jack's Wild, being a deep closer, was compromised by a very slow pace in the Korbel. That doesn't figure to happen Saturday. There is enough early speed in this race to suggest an honest pace, which should enhance Jack's Wild's late punch, which seems better at this distance than any other.