09/29/2004 11:00PM

Vosburgh looks a perfect fit

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NEW YORK - There is plenty of good and important stakes racing around the country Saturday, but most of it will offer only smidges and glimpses of what to expect at the Breeders' Cup four weeks hence.

The Jockey Club Gold Cup may yield just a marginal starter or two for the Classic, since all the top Classic contenders are training up to that race without an October prep. The Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, Flower Bowl, and Yellow Ribbon have drawn interesting fields prepping for the Turf and the Filly and Mare Turf, but those Cup races are likely to be dominated by Europeans who have yet to cross the pond.

The shining exception is a race that in recent years had become almost reviled as a Breeders' Cup prep, but this year drew the three top contenders for the main event: the Vosburgh, which looks like the race of the weekend.

Speightstown and Pico Central are the two most accomplished sprinters in the game right now, and Cajun Beat is the defending Sprint champion. Contrarians who have grown accustomed to betting against the Vosburgh winner in the Sprint - in 20 years, only Artax in 1999 won both races - are advised to check the distance this year: This 65th running of the Vosburgh will be the first at six furlongs. The race was stepped down to 6 1/2 furlongs last year and then reduced again to match the Sprint distance this year.

The distance reduction deserves a moment of regret because the final furlong of the old Vosburgh showcased the brilliance of many a fast horse who needed the extra yards to uncork his rally and run down a pure speedball.

In the Breeders' Cup era, though, the change was necessary and overdue. The Vosburgh was simply a poor prep for the Sprint, as a seven-furlong race often is for a six-furlong engagement, whether it's a Grade 1 or a $5,000 N2L.

You can make some kind of a case for any of this year's three Vosburgh stars. Cajun Beat has the toughest task returning from a layoff, and his appearance has the feel of a prep. On the other hand, the Beyer Speed Figure of 120 he earned in last year's Sprint remains the highest in the field, and Bobby Frankel's sprinters routinely fire huge races off layoffs. Case in point: Watchem Smokey, who completes the compact Vosburgh field of four and will be running late to pick up any pieces if his three quicker rivals exhaust one another.

Pico Central is an "old Vosburgh" kind of horse now trying to prove himself at six furlongs, a shorter distance than he has tried since he was a pup in Brazil two years ago chasing $2,800 purses. He was brilliant this spring winning the San Carlos, Carter, and Metropolitan, but had no excuse tiring badly in the Pat O'Brien at Del Mar last time out. It's difficult to know what to expect now, but it's tough to leave him out of the mix.

Speightstown is the logical, in-form horse and comes into the race off two superb six-furlong efforts, earning a Beyer Figure of 115 in the True North and then a 117 in the Vanderbilt. The only hole in his r?sum? is that he hasn't won a Grade 1 race. Is this a technicality or perhaps a tipoff that he has yet to prove himself against the best of the best? If he wins the Vosburgh, he'll have done that, too.

Getting these three to make it as far as the Sprint this year would make the race a success. The chance that we may get to see them hook up twice is something special.

Pick four could be early-bird special

Oak Tree and its chairman, Sherwood Chillingworth, are to be commended for trying a new wager at the Santa Anita meeting that began Wednesday, a $1 pick five on the last five races of the day. Anything new and different on an American wagering menu is welcome in a game that does a generally poor job of refreshing its product line.

Having said that, it seems unlikely that the pick five will do much more than rearrange dollars already being bet on the last six races of the day in the pick six and the last four races of the day on the pick four. Instead of overloading the back end of the card with more multirace bets, why don't more major tracks offer both an early and a late pick four? The pick four has become the multirace wager of choice because it regularly gives both small and big bettors an opportunity at a four-digit score.

There are plenty of days, especially on weekdays with no pick six carryover, that multirace bettors look at only the last four races of the day in New York or California in order to play the pick four. If there were another such bet on races 2 through 5, overall betting might actually increase instead of just moving around among overlapping pools.