09/10/2003 11:00PM

For Volponi, change is good

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Volponi is a horse that seemingly reacts positively to change. Change his equipment - such as adding blinkers in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic - and Volponi usually responds with a big race.

Twice Volponi has won stakes when he changed surfaces from dirt to turf. And four times in his 28-race career Volponi has won a race when trainer Phil Johnson has changed riders.

Johnson hopes that trend continues Saturday when Volponi returns to turf for the first time in a year in the Grade 2, $200,000 Belmont Breeders' Cup Handicap at 1 1/8 miles. In addition to the surface switch, Volponi will have a new rider in John Velazquez, who replaces Jerry Bailey. Velazquez rode Volponi twice as a 2-year-old, including a win in the Grade 3 Pilgrim Stakes over Belmont's inner turf, Volponi's first career victory.

Volponi is 2 for 6 on turf, winning last year's Poker Handicap following a fourth-place finish on dirt. Volponi has run on dirt in all five starts this year, finishing second each time. But the main reason Johnson is going back to the turf is to avoid the heavyweights of the handicap division in such races as the Woodward last Saturday and the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Sept. 27.

"The change in surface allows me to avoid Mineshaft," Johnson said.

Volponi ran in the Belmont Breeders' Cup last year, losing a three-quarter-length decision to Startac, who rallied up the rail. Volponi came back to run second in the Meadowlands Cup before pulling off his memorable upset in the BC Classic.

Johnson said he might use the same schedule this year. However, if Volponi runs really well Saturday, Johnson may also consider pointing Volponi to the Breeders' Cup Turf.

Volponi has run nine times on turf, but has never raced over anything but firm ground. With rain in the forecast, the turf may be soft, and that is a variable Johnson isn't sure about.

"I hate to run him on soft turf just because I never have," Johnson said.

If it rained enough to force the Belmont Breeders' Cup off the turf, Volponi would be a standout in the race.

After Volponi, the race is wide open on turf. Rouvres handled soft ground in France and finished second in the Bernard Baruch over yielding turf at Saratoga. Rouvres had a tough trip in the Fourstardave, finishing fifth after steadying back to last entering the first turn and being floated nine wide in the stretch. Corey Nakatani, aboard in the Bernard Baruch, is back aboard Saturday.

State Shinto, who won an allowance over good ground here in June, and Eltawaasul, who won a stakes at Monmouth over soft ground, would benefit most from this race being run on soft turf.