08/20/2003 11:00PM

Three big races, no small prices

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NEW YORK - Autumn weekends are supposed to be when you find the strongest stakes action, in terms of both quality and quantity. If that is true, then the upcoming fall weekends are going to be something to see considering how special the stakes racing threatens to be this weekend.

On Saturday, there is the $1 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga, which may have no equal when it comes to prerace plot twists and drama, all of which mainly center around the question: Who really is going to run? The Travers heads an excellent Saratoga card that also includes the Grade 1, $200,000 King's Bishop, the $200,000 Fourstardave, and the $200,000 Ballston Spa Breeders' Cup.

Other races of note Saturday include the $200,000 Philip H. Iselin Breeders' Cup Handicap at Monmouth Park, and the $150,000 Rancho Bernardo Handicap at Del Mar.

Then, thanks to the magic of a 96-hour draw, we also already know that on Sunday a high-class field of five is scheduled to run in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar. The Pacific Classic is part of a Grade 1 doubleheader at Del Mar Sunday that also includes the $300,000 Del Mar Oaks.

Here are my three spotlight races:

Travers

Eight horses were entered, and as of Thursday afternoon, the status of half of them - Empire Maker, Funny Cide, Peace Rules, and Congrats - was in varying degrees of question. No matter. I like Sky Mesa.

I thought Sky Mesa ran a huge race finishing second to Peace Rules in the Haskell earlier this month. With a quality opponent like Peace Rules loose on an uncontested lead, not only was Sky Mesa up against it from a strategic standpoint, he also did a lot of his running on the inside, which seemed decidedly deeper than the paths away from the rail. Nevertheless, Sky Mesa finished strongly, cutting Peace Rules's lead in midstretch nearly in half and putting more than seven lengths between him and third-place finisher Funny Cide.

This time, Sky Mesa may be the one to sit a good trip, especially if Empire Maker scratches and Peace Rules starts, which appeared the most likely scenario at this writing. Sky Mesa can sit a nice stalking trip off a pace contested by Strong Hope and Peace Rules, neither of whom seem like a true 1 1/4-mile horse, anyway. And, Sky Mesa should be ready to produce another forward move third start back off a long layoff.

King's Bishop

The wild card in this race is the seven-furlong distance, which I think is going to make some horses who have been running well at six furlongs rubber-legged in the late stages. That includes Zavata, who will be the favorite off his win in the Amsterdam, and who flopped at 1-5 in his one previous attempt at seven furlongs in the Hopeful.

Posse showed little as the favorite in the Amsterdam, but is my pick to make amends, as he may have needed that race off a two-month layoff. He won three straight stakes before that, two at seven furlongs, and if this race falls apart in the final furlong like I think it will, he will be the one to capitalize with his late kick.

Pacific Classic

"Bounce" continues to be the most overused and misapplied term in racing, but it may have pertinence here in the case of Medaglia d'Oro. Medaglia d'Oro is the deserving favorite, but he had a hard race winning the Whitney three weeks ago, and considering that draining effort came off a four-month layoff, it wouldn't surprise me if he regressed Sunday.

Candy Ride is a logical alternative, and this talented Argentinean may well keep his record perfect. But, he is the 7-5 second choice on the morning line, and that's a tough price to take on a horse making his first start against the kind of company he faces in this race.

I'm going with Milwaukee Brew. He is much improved since getting blinkers early this year, as evidenced by the positional speed he showed winning the Santa Anita Handicap last March. Moreover, Milwaukee Brew fired his "A" race to win the Big Cap in his second start off a layoff. He will be making his second start off a layoff on Sunday after easily winning an allowance prep three weeks ago.