08/21/2002 12:00AM

Travers chance for Puzzlement to shine

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Allen Jerkens has always believed Puzzlement to be a good horse. He figured by now he would know for sure if he were right.

Jerkens and the rest of us will find out how good Puzzlement is when he faces heavy favorite Medaglia d'Oro, one-time Kentucky Derby future-book favorite Repent, and six others in Saturday's $1 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga.

Puzzlement drew the outside post in the nine-horse field and was installed as a 20-1 longshot by track linemaker Don LaPlace. If Jerkens and jockey Jean-Luc Samyn are correct, you may want to take a flyer on Puzzlement, a 3-year-old son of 1992 Preakness winner Pine Bluff.

"He's a special horse," said Samyn, who not only rides Puzzlement in the afternoon, but gets on him in the morning as well. "He definitely has another gear that a lot of horses don't have. That's what makes him special."

Medaglia d'Oro, the blowout Jim Dandy winner, drew post 5 and was installed as a 2-5 favorite by LaPlace. Repent, the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby winner, who is unraced since April 6, drew post 4 and was made the 6-1 second choice. Like a Hero, the Swaps runner-up and Haskell third-place finisher, was made the 8-1 third choice.

Shah Jehan, Gold Dollar, Quest, Nothing Flat, and Saint Marden complete the field. The Travers tops an 11-race card that features three other stakes in a pick-four wager with a $1 million guaranteed pool. Gates open Saturday at 7 a.m., and first post is 12:30 p.m.

Puzzlement, who did not debut until March at Gulfstream, has a record of 3-1-2 from six starts. His lone stakes try came in the Grade 2 Peter Pan where he finished second, beaten one length by Sunday Break. That performance had Jerkens thinking he had a big shot to knock off Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem in the Belmont Stakes.

"Not only that, but in my own mind I didn't think [War Emblem] could get the trip," Jerkens said. "It looked like a good chance for him if he could run his race."

But Puzzlement never made it to the Belmont starting gate. Two days before the race, Puzzlement developed a foot abscess and had to scratch. Jerkens had to start over.

After a short time in which Puzzlement recovered from the injury, Jerkens mapped out a plan to try to have a fresh horse for the Travers. Instead of running in the Dwyer Stakes at Belmont or the Jim Dandy, Puzzlement ran in a second-level allowance race at Saratoga on July 28 where he rallied from 15 lengths back to win by three-quarters of a length.

Samyn said the race may have looked tough on Puzzlement, but it really wasn't.

"To me he enjoyed every minute of it," Samyn said. "He did it very comfortably; it was perfect. [Jerkens] said to me in June he would run the horse one time before the Travers and it would be at the beginning of the meet. The plan up to now has been perfect."

The plan took a bit of a detour on Tuesday when a planned seven-furlong workout had to be aborted at the quarter pole. Samyn had to abruptly pull the horse up, but fortunately, the horse suffered no ill effects.

"He looks fine," said Jerkens, who had not decided whether he would do anything more with the horse before the race.

Puzzlement is a confirmed closer who would benefit greatly from a contested pace and an honest track. In fact, if Samyn has any fears it would be that the track plays to front-runners, as it did when Medaglia d'Oro romped in the Jim Dandy.

"Let's hope the track is fair," Samyn said. "You can win on the lead if you're good enough, you can win from behind if you're good enough. If the bias is like Jim Dandy Day it makes it a little bit tough."

For his part, Jerkens is just happy to have gotten Puzzlement to the Travers. He believes the horse is well equipped to handle the 10 furlongs, and would view a triumph as important as winning any Triple Crown race.

"His wind is good, and he's bred to go long and he's willing to train to go long," Jerkens said. "I always thought he was pretty good. You always like to see them prove it; he hasn't proven it yet."

Saturday, he will have that chance.