06/06/2003 12:00AM

Tonight's Wager eyes 26th win


Tonight's Wager, a winner of 25 of 38 career starts and a former champion in Puerto Rico, heads a competitive field of 10 in the $60,000 Monmouth Beach Handicap at Monmouth Park on Sunday.

The Monmouth Beach, for fillies and mares 3 years old and up, will be run at 1 1/16 miles, a distance within reach of some of the classier front-runners and well within the range of the closers, making for a good betting race.

Tonight's Wager, who is trained by Bill Mott and will be ridden by Dale Beckner, figures to make her run from midpack. A 5-year-old mare, she will be making her sixth start in the U.S. after a highly successful career in Puerto Rico, where she was the champion imported 3-year-old filly in 2001.

Although Tonight's Wager has only one win in five starts in the U.S., the victory came in a 1 1/16-mile, $100,000 optional claiming race at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 20. In that race, Tonight's Wager came from off the pace to win by 3 3/4 lengths and earn a Beyer Speed Figure of 92.

Three horses will likely vie for the early lead in the Monmouth Beach, led by Pocus Hocus, a shipper from New York who has been on the sidelines since mid-February.

Trained by James Jerkens, Pocus Hocus ran four times over the winter at Aqueduct before being given a rest. She easily won a two-other-than allowance in her first start of that stretch in December, but she threw in the towel after setting the pace in the Grade 3 Affectionately Handicap in her next start. After that, she narrowly missed in the restricted Videogenic Stakes and finished second in the Rare Treat Handicap to Ellie's Moment.

Pocus Hocus will be challenged early by Dance the Slew, part of a two-horse entry from owner Michael Gill and trainer Mark Shuman. Vikki Slew also figures to join the early fight, but her class is suspect in this group.

Gill and Shuman have frequently entered one-two punches in stakes races this year, and their entry for the Monmouth Beach is no different. The entry's other half, Fly Me Crazy, will likely track the leaders and will benefit if the front-runners go too fast too soon.

Last year's Monmouth Beach winner, Southern Fiction, is back and will likely stalk as well. Southern Fiction is using the Monmouth Beach as a prep race for the Eatontown Handicap on Monmouth's grass course on July 27, according to trainer Vicki Oliver.