07/30/2003 11:00PM

Time is ripe to jump on Volponi


NEW YORK - Handicapping horses is challenging enough. But, when this pursuit also includes handicapping the weather, it can be downright maddening.

This comes to mind because the weather may be a factor this weekend in such stakes as Saturday's $750,000 Whitney Handicap and $150,000 Amsterdam Stakes at Saratoga, and in Sunday's $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, and $500,000 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga.

Or, it may not. The weather forecast for the entire East Coast on Saturday and Sunday calls for anywhere from a 30 to 60 percent chance of thunderstorms, which means there is anywhere from a 70 to 40 percent chance that it will not rain. Way to hedge, guys. I have always maintained that the world's worst Thoroughbred handicapper is better than the world's best weather forecaster, and if these weather "experts" ever tried to hedge the way they do at a racetrack, they would be laughed right out the front gate.

At least weather won't be a factor in Saturday's $150,000 San Clemente Handicap for fillies on the turf. Unless, that is, some of them have trouble handling the sun.

Here are my three spotlight races:


I picked Volponi in his last two starts and watched him finish second in both, first getting beat by a track bias in the Brooklyn Handicap, and then getting beat by a better horse in Mineshaft in the Suburban. I'm still sticking with him. This is Volponi's first true two-turn race since his blowout victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic last October. He should benefit from that, as well as an expected lively pace, which should enable him to get a nice stalking trip.

Medaglia d'Oro is certainly a legitimate favorite, as he won the Travers and Jim Dandy at Saratoga last summer, and he romped in his two starts this year. But, he is returning from an injury-related absence, he will see pressure up front from Proud Citizen, and perhaps Northern Rock, and he will probably be odds-on even though Volponi walloped him in their only meeting.

If the track does come up seriously wet, then Evening Attire must be included in exotic wagers. He is one of the few horses who actually does move up on an "off" track, and he got his confidence back with an allowance romp on opening day at Saratoga.

San Clemente

This is not the easiest spot for a first-timer on turf, but I'm going with just such a filly in Buffythecenterfold. Buffythecenterfold is certainly bred to like grass, as she is from Augusta Springs, who in her racing days won 3 of 5 career starts, all on turf, and was also third in a stakes race.

Moreover, Buffythecenterfold has kept stronger company than what she faces Saturday. Beside her four career stakes wins, she also finished second in stakes to Composure, who was certainly one of the best fillies of her generation, and to Santa Catarina two starts ago in the Hollywood Breeders' Cup Oaks. That race was a breakthrough of sorts for Buffythecenterfold as she proved she can run well going two turns when rated off the early lead, something that may be an asset to her here.

Haskell Invitational

At the risk of being labeled a subversive, I'm picking Peace Rules over Funny Cide here for one simple reason: I honestly believe there isn't a lot of difference in terms of ability between these two horses, but there will be a big difference in terms of their prices. Funny Cide will be a heavy favorite, while Peace Rules, though certain to be second choice, will be a bigger ticket.

How distant a second choice Peace Rules will be depends on how much emphasis the betting public puts on his distant fourth behind Funny Cide in the Preakness. I think that race is a throw-out. Before that, Peace Rules was a strong third to Funny Cide in the Kentucky Derby off only two prep races, a schedule that hasn't worked since 1983, and he beat Funny Cide when he won the Louisiana Derby.

In addition, Funny Cide's primary goal of the summer is a meeting with Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker in the Aug. 23 Travers, so his people may be looking beyond this race, even if just a bit. Peace Rules is not going to the Travers. This race is his primary goal.