09/30/2003 11:00PM

Volponi still seeks first 2003 win


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Hall of Fame trainer Phil Johnson would love to see Volponi relax in the early stages of the Grade 2 Meadowlands Cup and make one strong run through the lane.

The only problem with that strategy: Volponi won't be the only one following that game plan.

"From what I heard, the whole field, all six horses, will be laying fourth," Johnson said.

He might not be far off the mark.

Of the six entrants in the nine-furlong, $400,000 Cup Friday night - the premier event of the Big M's Thoroughbred season - only longshot Unforgettable Max brings pacesetting speed. The other five will be jockeying for stalking or closing position.

Volponi, the defending Breeders' Cup Classic winner, returns for a second try at the Meadowlands Cup. He ran second to Burning Roma in last year's edition - his final prep before shocking the world at 43-1 in the Classic.

The Meadowlands Cup also brings Johnson back to a track at which he has many fond memories. He is the all-time leading stakes-winning trainer at the Big M with 19, having edged ahead of Hall of Famer Woody Stephens.

"I've got that going for me," Johnson said. "And Woody can't come back to beat me."

Volponi could use a win at this point. He has run well against the leaders of the handicap division, but has yet to win in six starts in 2003. Johnson again seeks a solid tune-up here with the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita the ultimate goal.

"If he runs a good race and gets beat, we're still going to the Breeders' Cup," said Johnson. "That's a mile and a quarter on a big, wide track and that's where he'll go."

A little shipping money wouldn't hurt.

"We'd like to win this one, too," said Johnson. "It would help with the transportation."

Volponi, running with blinkers off, will break from post 2 as a solid favorite. John Velazquez will fly back from Keeneland Friday night to ride.

The second choice will likely be Dynever, a 3-year-old colt trained by Christophe Clement. He was won 3 of 7 starts with the Grade 3 Lone Star Derby his most prominent victory. He drew post 5, and Corey Nakatani will ride.