04/19/2007 12:00AM

Two give flair to NJC Cap

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CHICAGO - Racing fans grown weary of five-horse fields in graded stakes races can find something different on Saturday at Hawthorne - a four-horse field in a graded stakes race.

But while the number of entries in the Grade 3, $250,000 National Jockey Club Handicap is disappointing, the NJC Cap, carded as race 4 at 1 1/8 miles on dirt, is not without appeal, and the race shares a solid card with the Grade 3 Sixty Sails Handicap. Two local horses, Le Jester and Courthouse, probably are running for third in the NJC, but the matchup between Master Command and Sweetnorthernsaint, legitimate graded stakes horses with similar running styles, is worth watching.

Todd Pletcher, Master Command's trainer, called Sweetnorthernsaint "a formidable foe," while Mike Trombetta, Sweetnorthernsaint's trainer, referred to Master Command as "the horse to beat" on Saturday. Both statements seem true.

Master Command has won his two 2007 starts easily, but he got perfect trips against overmatched competition in the Mineshaft and New Orleans handicaps at Fair Grounds. He also won the Meadowlands Cup last fall, but finished fourth in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap at Churchill, and the jury still is out on his ceiling. Pletcher has found another softer spot this time, but he means to test Master Command in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster in June.

"That's the idea," he said. "We'd hope the spacing of this race would set him up well."

Pletcher, who won the April 7 Illinois Derby with Cowtown Cat, said Master Command "is doing fantastic," and that the Hawthorne track "should suit him well." But Sweetnorthernsaint, who shipped by van from Trombetta's Laurel Park base Wednesday, already is proven at Hawthorne, with a blowout victory in the 2006 Illinois Derby.

Sweetnorthernsaint was freshened after finishing second in the Preakness, and ocame back in solid enough form last fall. But he has yet to really build on his decisive win here a year ago, and didn't have an ideal winter in Florida. Trombetta said he was using the Hal's Hope Stakes as a prep race for the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic, but Sweetnorthernsaint wound up third behind Chatain's track-record-setting performance in the Hal's Hope, then drew the terrible outside post in the Sunshine Millions, finishing fifth.

"He ran a peak effort three weeks too early," Trombetta said.

Sweetnorthernsaint comes into the NJC Cap after an easy win in a minor Laurel stakes race. He might be ready for a peak effort this time - and traffic trouble should not be an issue.