08/04/2004 11:00PM

Whitney sets up for Perfect Drift

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NEW YORK - Few races in the nation have a history as impressive as the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga. The list of previous winners reads like a roll call of champions and members of the Hall of Fame. So, the Whitney is designated as the most important race on the continent Saturday for reasons bigger than the fact that it is the only Grade 1 event on Saturday's schedule and is also the richest race of the day with a purse of $750,000. Those factors certainly don't hurt, however.

Also Saturday at Saratoga is the $150,000 Amsterdam Stakes, a six-furlong event for 3-year-olds that is a springboard to the Grade 1 King's Bishop Stakes on Travers Day.

Saturday may be a big day at the Spa, but the same can be said for Mountaineer Park in West Virginia, and Ellis Park in western Kentucky. At Mountaineer, the $600,000 West Virginia Derby heads a card that includes six other stakes, one worth $100,000 and the other five worth $85,000 each. And in the face of severe competition for 3-year-olds from Sunday's $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth and $500,000 Jim Dandy at Saratoga, the West Virginia Derby did well to attract a field of nine. At Ellis, the main event is the Gardenia Handicap for fillies and mares, an event that, with a purse of $200,000, is by far the richest race of the Ellis meet.

Meanwhile, at Del Mar, potential stars of tomorrow meet in the $150,000 Sorrento Stakes for 2-year-old fillies.

Here are three stakes that intrigued me, in the order I prefer them:

Whitney

The striking thing about the composition of this field is how much speed there is. Roses in May and Yessirgeneralsir both look like one-way front-runners. Peace Rules can sit close, but he is most effective when right on the pace. Seattle Fitz and Newfoundland both also prefer to be close up early.

Under these circumstances, I want a horse who can come from off the pace, and the horse for me here is Perfect Drift. Perfect Drift turned in by far his best race of the year last time out when he ran second in the Cornhusker to Roses in May, who capitalized on a huge strategical advantage as the controlling speed. That effort signals that Perfect Drift is approaching the fine dirt form he demonstrated last year when he won four dirt stakes, including the Grade 1 Stephen Foster over the Horse of the Year, Mineshaft. And with Pat Day, Perfect Drift also has the right jockey to fit the anticipated pace scenario.

West Virginia Derby

Pollard's Vision is entered in this race and in Sunday's Haskell. I hope he runs in this event, because he will be the favorite here, and I feel confident I can beat him with Sir Shackleton.

Sir Shackleton comes off a third-place finish in the Dwyer, which was a very interesting race. Medallist set scorching fractions and still won by plenty, but it seemed the only horse people talked about afterward was The Cliff's Edge, who rallied to edge Sir Shackleton for second by a half-length. The fact is, Sir Shackleton ran just as well as The Cliff's Edge, if not better. He was the one who pursued that wicked pace under hustling tactics while The Cliff's Edge lagged back, and when The Cliff's Edge collared him at the top of the stretch, Sir Shackleton never let him get away. A similar effort Saturday would be good enough.

Haskell Invitational

Lion Heart was made the early favorite over Rock Hard Ten. I firmly believe Rock Hard Ten will be the favorite, and off his dominating score last time out in the Swaps, I expect him to win right back. But money can still be made here. Lion Heart was hard-pressed to win his recent comeback over a weaker field. The company line is, he wasn't at his best, and will improve off that race. Maybe. He will have to. But I think a gut-wrenching effort off a layoff says Lion Heart could just as easily go the wrong way, and I'm going to try and knock him out of the exotic wagers altogether.

So, I'm taking Rock Hard Ten in exotics over Pies Prospect, Royal Assault, and Swingforthefences, all of whom have the late running styles that can enable them to pick up some minor shares late.