10/01/2002 11:00PM

Volponi has right trainer for the Cup

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NEW YORK - When New York trainer P.G. Johnson ventures across the Hudson River to The Meadowlands, he usually does it for a big race and usually for a big race he can win. It's no fluke that Johnson, 76, has won more stakes at the Big M (19) than any other trainer.

And he is making the trip again Friday night, for the Grade 2, $400,000 Meadowlands Cup at 1 1/8 miles, the marquee race of the meet. Returning with him is Volponi, who won the Grade 2 Pegasus for 3-year-olds at the Big M last year and looks like the horse to beat in the Cup.

"I would think so," Johnson said. "He's pretty sharp right now."

Volponi, who has been equally effective on turf or dirt, owns the top Beyer Speed Figure in the race (113) and the most triple-digit Beyers. He will be making his first main-track start after four turf races. In his last three, Volponi finished second by a neck to Del Mar Show in the Grade 2 Bernard Baruch, third behind With Anticipation and Denon in the Grade 1 Sword Dancer, and second by less than a length to Startac in the Grade 2 Belmont Breeders' Cup. No other horse in the Cup, except possibly Gander, is keeping such lofty company.

But the Cup field is huge, with 11 horses, and Volponi's edge on a few of the others isn't enormous. He's 5-1 on the morning line.

Gander is the tepid 7-2 morning line favorite, thanks to running second to Lido Palace in the Grade 1 Woodward at Belmont last out. But the Woodward field was soft this year, and Gander has won only three of his last 16 starts.

Bowman's Band has run first or second in nine of 11 lifetime starts, including second-place finishes in this year's Grade 1 Oaklawn Handicap and Grade 2 Iselin. But Volponi beat him by 12 3/4 lengths in last year's Pegasus, the only time they have met.

Express Tour finished third in the Woodward in his last start and won the Grade 2 Jerome last year, but he hasn't won a race in almost 12 months.

Open Sesame has a solid record (24-8-4-5), hot connections in trainer Jimmy Jerkens and rider Jorge Chavez, and the most early speed. But he is stepping up here.

Cat's at Home, the Iselin winner at 10-1, would be a surprise, but not an unfathomable one.

Johnson cross-entered Volponi in the $350,000 Kelso on the turf at Belmont Saturday, but only in case of rain.

"I'd rather run on soft turf at Belmont than a wet track at Meadowlands," he said. "But this is the race we want."

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