10/17/2002 12:00AM

Week to get betting muscles in shape

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NEW YORK - Everyone is looking forward to next Saturday - and that is as it should be. Breeders' Cup Day is truly special. But, our eagerness for the Cup shouldn't tempt us to ignore or disparage this Saturday's stakes action.

There aren't any Breeders' Cup-caliber races on Saturday. There aren't even any stakes ranked as high as Grade 2. There is, however, New York Showcase Day at Belmont Park, a program of seven stakes for New York breds worth a total of $1 million, led by the $250,000 Empire Classic. And, there are nine other stakes across North America on Saturday. Many of these will be entertaining, and some will be intriguing from a betting perspective. Let's take a look at three of them.

Empire Classic: Gander worth going against

Three starts back, Gander earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 105 crushing an open classified allowance field. Last time out, Gander fell less than a length shy of Lido Palace in the Grade 1 Woodward. In both of those races, Gander contested fast paces, and produced quick internal fractions. That's why he will be a strong favorite in the Empire Classic.

But, Gander's luck this year resembles mine at the windows. Gander couldn't make his scheduled start in the recent Meadowlands Cup because of a bloody nose. He dumped his rider one step out of the gate in the Saratoga Breeders' Cup Handicap. Early this year, he was 3-5 against statebreds in the Kings Point Handicap but was nosed after a terrible start. Even in the Woodward, up against a Lido Palace who was not at his best, Gander couldn't capitalize.

The Empire Classic is a perfect spot for Gander to shed the curse. But when things are going bad, it can be tough to snap out of it. There is a lot of other early speed to affect Gander Saturday. So, at a short price, I will try and tip him over. I will go with Sherpa Guide.

Sherpa Guide finished fifth behind Gander in the Woodward, but that was his first start off a freshening, and it could be viewed as a prep for this spot. Before the Woodward, Sherpa Guide ripped off three straight solid scores, including the Evan Shipman Handicap over the Belmont main track. His closing style is also attractive given the anticipated pace scenario.

Hudson Handicap: Vodka, nazdrovia!

One of the six other stakes on Showcase Day, the Hudson lured Say Florida Sandy, the richest New York bred of all time, with earnings of nearly $2 million. Because of his blue-collar history, Say Florida Sandy is always a sentimental favorite, and he's likely to be the betting favorite here as well. However, Say Florida Sandy didn't look like his old self in his last two starts, and may still be knocked out from chasing Breeders' Cup Sprint favorite Orientate three starts back in the A.G. Vanderbilt at Saratoga.

I like Vodka. Vodka was terrific in his two starts this year, romping over statebreds in the Hollie Hughes, and finishing a strong second to subsequent Grade 1 Carter winner Affirmed Success in the Toboggan.

The thing is, that was seven months ago. But Vodka's trainer, John Hertler, is rarely more dangerous than with horses coming off long layoffs. And, in another race full of early speed, Vodka's closing style fits. He can make the old-fashioned "Belmont balcony" move from the 12 hole.

Blue Hen: Ladyecho the choice

The emphasis in this Delaware Park race for 2-year-old fillies going a two-turn mile is also on finishing ability. Especially when you consider that Galloping Dancer, who won a one-mile prep for the Blue Hen by a widening six lengths, did so despite a last quarter in more than 28 seconds.

Ladyecho is my pick here. Ladyecho showed she had quality last May when she ran the very talented, and since retired, Forever Partners to a nose in her debut. She recently returned from a four-month absence to win comfortably at The Meadowlands, finishing reasonably well, and she has a suitable pedigree for the stretch out in distance.

The ones I would use underneath Ladyecho in exotics are Let's Just Do It, who is logical off two straight wins, Our Mariah, who was compromised by a tough outside post in a recent turf stakes at The Meadowlands, and Xtra Heart, a recent maiden winner at the distance at Belmont.