08/01/2004 11:00PM

Weekend may not fill Cup


NEW YORK - From the four most impressive stakes victories during the first week of Saratoga, while great to watch and fun to contemplate, it is unlikely that three of those Spa stakes winners in question will be seen at the Breeders' Cup at Lone Star Oct. 30.

Azeri, who has shown the inclination, if not always the constitution, to tackle every challenge her people can think of throwing her way, ran one of her very best races winning Sunday's Go for Wand Handicap over a determined Sightseek. In the process, she saved the bacon for the Breeders' Cup, because you know she will be there in Texas if she is still breathing. But the story is likely very different for Wonder Again and Society Selection, easy winners of Saturday's Diana and Test, respectively, and probably even for Afleet Alex, who was nearly sensational winning the Sanford last Thursday.

Soon after he sent out Wonder Again to victory in the Diana, trainer Jimmy Toner all but removed his mare from consideration for the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf by noting he hadn't even thought about the race because Wonder Again is a poor traveler. On Monday, Toner said Wonder Again's Breeders' Cup status depends on her performance in Belmont's Flower Bowl, her next start, but it is still uncertain at best. This is too bad, because Wonder Again established in the Diana that she is the best female turf horse in the nation outside of Southern California. In winning by nearly six lengths, she was even more dominant than she was winning the New York Handicap at Belmont Park in her last start, and she romped in that one.

Some people will be quick to attribute Wonder Again's streak to her affinity for off footing, as she won the New York 'Cap over a soft course, and her win Saturday came after mid-card rains rendered the turf yielding. That wouldn't be fair. While it is obvious that Wonder Again handles off going just fine, she is also very capable on dry courses. Wonder Again's first Grade 1 victory (the Diana was her second) came on a firm inner course at Belmont in the 2002 Garden City Breeders' Cup Handicap. Her one win last year in an otherwise forgettable 4-year-old campaign came in the Noble Damsel Handicap at Belmont, which was run over a rock-hard Widener course.

In the race following Wonder Again's eye-catching effort, Society Selection overwhelmed her field in the Grade 1 Test, scoring by a widening 6 1/4 lengths. Although the Test is at seven furlongs, Society Selection is much more than just an effective sprinter. She won the Grade 1 Frizette last fall going 1 1/16 miles fresh off a maiden win in her career debut, and was Grade 2 stakes placed early this year at 1 1/8 miles. In other words, she could be a legitimate candidate for the Breeders' Cup Distaff, but it may not be a good idea to hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Society Selection is trained by Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens, who likes to ship his horses as much as the rest of us enjoy root canal work, and not even the Breeders' Cup is enough of an incentive to change his mind. Last year was only the third year in Breeders' Cup history that Jerkens left his New York headquarters to participate, and Society Selection's 10th-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies as the second betting choice certainly couldn't have encouraged Jerkens to ship more frequently. In fact, Jerkens passed this year on the Kentucky Oaks with Society Selection even though his filly had just dominated the Comely Stakes and had more of a right to be in the Oaks than most.

To many, the most electrifying stakes win at Saratoga last week was Afleet Alex's in the Sanford. Afleet Alex came up from Delaware Park, where he won his first two starts by 11 1/4 and 12 lengths, and humbled a field full of intriguing prospects, winning off by more than five lengths. Yet, even at this early stage, don't look for Afleet Alex in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

"I don't think I would want to go to the Breeders' Cup," Afleet Alex's trainer, Tim Ritchey, said in a telephone interview. "The question I have about [the Juvenile] is: the horses who won it - where are they? I don't want him to have too many races. I mapped out a campaign of five races, and that's enough. I would like him to be even better as a 3-year-old."

Ritchey's five-race plan calls for Afleet Alex to make his next start in either Saratoga's Hopeful Stakes on Aug. 21, or the Sapling at Monmouth one week later, and then conclude his 2-year-old season in the Champagne at Belmont on Oct. 9. Ritchey said he was leaning toward the Hopeful, calling it "a more prestigious race" than the Sapling. "But if he's not ready," said Ritchey, "it's very possible we'll wait for the Champagne. I do want the chance to run him long before the year is over."

Of course, Alfleet Alex's Breeders' Cup status could change if he is sold privately. Owner Chuck Zacney's nom de course is, after all, Cash Is King Stable.

"My phone started ringing in the winner's circle and I had to turn it off," Ritchey said. "It was ringing on the way back to the airport, and I know there's a law in New York against driving and talking on a cell phone, so I turned it off again. I don't bring my phone with me when I go to the track during training. I just got back from a set, and I had 11 missed calls. I talked to the owner, and right now, he is not for sale. I would like to see us follow through with him and find how good he really is."