06/28/2007 12:00AM

Taking a stand against two clear-cut favorites


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The betting public seems likely to wager that Saturday's Firecracker Handicap at Churchill Downs and the Hollywood Gold Cup at Hollywood Park are each a two-horse contest. Remarkable News and Brilliant are clear favorites in the Firecracker, and Lava Man and Molengao should draw the bulk of the public's support in the Gold Cup.

Those horses all appear formidable, but I see contention running deeper than the tote board might indicate, and plan to take a couple shots with price horses.

Beginning with the Firecracker, I see opportunity by playing California invader Vega's Lord. An 8-1 outsider on the track morning line, he is a horse that is better than a quick glance at his form might indicate.

Imported to this country from Germany, Vega's Lord has been managed like a top grass horse, running in such demanding races as the Hollywood Derby, the San Francisco Mile, and Shoemaker Mile. Granted, he does not have much yet to show for it - his lone competitive effort came when second in the San Francisco Mile - but his placement in such races tell horseplayers the high opinion that trainer Neil Drysdale and owner Gary Tanaka have for the colt.

I see excuses for his two poor efforts in America. When racing in the Hollywood Derby, Vega's Lord was making his first start in the United States and raced 1 1/4 miles, a distance beyond his best. Then last time out in the Shoemaker, he had the misfortune of a wide trip against some of the nation's best milers.

Although Vega's Lord finished ninth of 10, his performance was fair. In contention leaving the final turn, he ended up losing by 3 1/4 lengths.

He also returned from the race bleeding from the mouth, which may have caused discomfort and compromised his effort.

The fact Drysdale ships him from California to run at Churchill, rather than regroup and go searching for an ungraded race or a money allowance on the West Coast, appears an encouraging sign.

He has not lost faith in the horse, and neither have I. Expect Vega's Lord to run back to the effort he produced in the San Francisco Mile, when he earned a 102 Beyer Speed Figure for a nose loss to Chinese Dragon.

Unlike in his three other starts in America, when he faced top opposition at equal weights, this time Vega's Lord benefits from the Firecracker being a handicap. Remarkable News and Brilliant spot him six and five pounds, respectively.

A. P. Xcellent can steal Gold Cup

Most horseplayers will foresee a duel in the Gold Cup much like the one in the Santa Anita Handicap, when Lava Man outlasted Molengao by three-quarters of a length.

I would not even be surprised to see some handicappers predicting Molengao might beat Lava Man this time around. His recent victory in the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap over Cushion Track was comically easy, and Lava Man was second as the favorite in the Charlie Whittingham in his most recent start.

In a search for value, I will play 5-1 morning-line shot A. P. Xcellent, a front-runner who should enjoy a favorable trip in what looks like a paceless 1 1/4-mile Gold Cup.

The only other speed is Lava Man. But his jockey, Corey Nakatani, knows his mount will have to withstand the late rush of Molengao - so it is difficult to envision him wanting Lava Man to test A. P. Xcellent during the first half-mile or three-quarters of the race. It serves his interests to have a moderate to slow pace.

Nakatani is likely going to ride Lava Man like he usually does: Place him in a pressing or stalking position, and ask him for a sustained run from the final turn to the wire.

Whether A. P. Xcellent is good enough to repel a turn bid from Lava Man and a stretch rally from Molengao remains to be seen. But he should get a better trip than he did in the Californian, when he was hounded into a fast pace early before fading to finish a close third behind Buzzards Bay.

Hard to go against Elocution at short price

One favorite I see as rock solid Saturday is Elocution in the Landaluce Stakes at Hollywood Park.

Racing in a stakes-quality allowance at Churchill Downs on June 15, she closed determinedly to be second to stablemate Sky Mom in a fast race for 2-year-old fillies. That race followed a fast winning debut effort at Keeneland.

Now her trainer, Steve Asmussen, confidently ships her across the country aiming for stakes success - just as he did with Wonderful Luck, who won the Cinderella at Hollywood on May 27 after having raced previously in Kentucky.

Having proved herself already over Keeneland's Polytrack, a synthetic surface similar to Hollywood's Cushion Track, she looms a standout and a good horse to single in multi-race wagers.