11/22/2001 12:00AM

Trainer says Volponi set to step up

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JAMAICA, N.Y. - The first time Phil Johnson ran Volponi in Grade 1 company was in the Travers at Saratoga this summer, and it didn't turn out too well. All Volponi got was hot and dirty.

Johnson is going to try his colt again on Saturday in the Grade 1 $350,000 Cigar Mile, and this time the trainer feels the attempt may be successful.

"He wasn't quite ready at that time for as demanding a race as the Travers," Johnson said the other day. "He's a more experienced campaigner now and he is coming off a particularly good performance in the Pegasus Handicap at The Meadowlands. He finished strongly and beat a nice horse, Burning Roma, who gave Point Given a run for the money in Monmouth's Haskell Invitational.

"It would probably be better for us if the Cigar was run at a mile and an eighth, but Volponi can win at a mile. He wasn't too far off the pace in the Pegasus when they ran the first six furlongs in 1:08 4/5."

Volponi, by the stretch-running Cryptoclearance, a winner of more than $3 million, was bred by trainer Johnson and his wife and two daughters, who collectively race as Amherst Stable. The Johnsons have a partner in Volponi, and several others in the stable. Ed Baier, an accountant, a family friend, and an old-school horse player, has an option to buy into any of the Johnson horses before they begin to race. Volponi, with earnings of almost $340,000 to date, has made this a memorable deal.

This is Johnson's 60th year in racing, and it has been an eventful one. Earlier in the year he battled prostate cancer, and did it on his terms,without interruption of his training duties. Allen Jerkens, another Old Soldier of the racing wars, has known Johnson since they were young trainers with stables at Miami's Tropical Park in the early 1950's. Jerkens was hospitalized with a serious illness in Florida last winter but fought it and won. Since his return to New York, once a week he climbs onto his pony and visits with Johnson at the latter's barn. They talk of other years and happier times, but neither has forgotten what to do when a good horse comes along.

The Cigar Mile is the feature of Saturday's outstanding card, but not the only attractive offering. As part of the Holidayfest weekend, the program also includes the $200,000 Remsen for 2-year-olds and the $200,000 Demoiselle for 2-year-old fillies, both at nine furlongs.

The undefeated Listen Here is the probable favorite in the Remsen, but as he continues to train well, sentiment is building for Saarland, a big bay son of Unbridled whom Shug McGaughey trains for Cynthia Phipps.

"We were disappointed with the results of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile," McGaughey said. "But in retrospect it wasn't a bad effort, and this is a colt who appears to be growing. I'm looking forward to running him around two turns Saturday. We'll try to keep him a little closer to the pace so that his interest is maintained. He has ability but things have happened. In the Champagne for example he stumbled at the start, losing position, and he also bled in the race. We'd like to see him put it all together one time and the Remsen could be the right time and place."