05/22/2003 12:00AM

Zavata figures sharp for 3-year-old debut


ELMONT, N.Y. - Zavata, who at one time last summer was considered the leading juvenile in the country, kicks off his 3-year-old campaign Saturday in a $56,000 stakes-caliber allowance race at Belmont Park.

The six-furlong allowance race also marks the seasonal debut of True Direction, who hasn't been out since winning last November's Grade 3 Fall Highweight Handicap at Aqueduct.

Zavata, a son of Phone Trick, was one of the more precocious 2-year-olds of 2002, winning three of his first four starts including the Grade 3 Tremont and Grade 2 Saratoga Special. After bombing as the 3-10 favorite in the Grade 1 Hopeful, Zavata was hampered by an ankle injury that kept him out of the Champagne. He ran in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but was eased and did not finish the race, apparently still bothered by the ankle.

Trainer Patrick Biancone gave Zavata plenty of time to get over his infirmities and had planned to run him in the Matt Winn Stakes May 10 at Churchill Downs. But, Biancone was not happy with the Churchill track and decided to skip that race.

"He's developed - he looks like a big tank,'' Biancone said. "We're happy with him so far.''

Zavata began training this spring in California and he worked exceptionally well at Keeneland before moving to Belmont, where he breezed five furlongs in a bullet 59.54 seconds Tuesday.

"I expect him to run good, I don't necessarily expect him to win,'' Biancone said.

Tony Farina will ride Zavata.

When he's right, True Direction is one of the better sprinters on the grounds. He has won five of eight starts including the Hirsch Jacobs at Pimlico and Fall Highweight at Aqueduct.

True Direction, a son of French Deputy, came out of last fall's Riva Ridge Stakes with a problem with the splint bone in his left foreleg. He came out of the Fall Highweight with a problem with the splint bone in his right foreleg.

Trainer Carlos Morales said the treatment for both splint bone problems was simply freeze-firing the bones with dry ice and giving the horse plenty of time off. Morales has been pleased with the way True Direction has trained up to this race, but he must carry top weight of 123 pounds. Jerry Bailey has the call.

Completing the field are Well Fancied, a multiple New York-bred stakes winner, Vodka, Kazoo, and Shake the Dice.

Met Mile: Saarland in, Smooth Jazz out

Saarland, a well-beaten second behind Najran in the Grade 3 Westchester Handicap, will make his next start in Monday's Grade 1, $750,000 Metropolitan Handicap, trainer Shug McGaughey confirmed Thursday.

Meanwhile, the race lost one runner as Smooth Jazz, impressive winner of the Grade 2 Commonwealth Stakes at Keeneland, will pass the race.

"Need more time,'' trainer Todd Pletcher said of Smooth Jazz, who will now be pointed to the Tom Fool Handicap July 4.

Initially, McGaughey was planning to use the Westchester as prep for the Brooklyn Handicap here June 14. But, McGaughey believes Saarland can run in the Met Mile and still come back in the Brooklyn.

"There's going to be some speed in there, so why not?'' said McGaughey, whose horse will get 10 pounds from Met Mile favorite Congaree. "It's not like it's five days from his last race. It's three weeks; it's three weeks to the Brooklyn and three weeks to the Suburban.

"If the track comes up off, he likes that,'' McGaughey added.

John Velazquez will ride Saarland.

A field of eight is expected for the Met Mile including Congaree, Aldebaran, Najran, Proud Citizen, Wake at Noon, Peeping Tom, Saarland, and Taste of Paradise.

Gander a double Kingston threat

Trainer John Terranova worked Gander five furlongs on turf last Sunday with the idea of running in this Sunday's $100,000 Kingston Handicap, scheduled for nine furlongs on turf. While Gander would be a contender if the race stayed on the turf, he'd be the one to beat if the race is rained off to the main track.

That could very well be the case as rain is in the forecast through Saturday night.

Part of Terranova would like the race to stay on the grass to see if the turf could be an option for the 7-year-old Gander. Gander has raced four times on turf, and has finished second on three occasions, including once to Hap in the New Hampshire Sweepstakes at Rockingham.

"If he can do it on the turf and the dirt it's all the better,'' Terranova said.

If the race stays on the turf, the Kingston figures to have a full field with the likes of defending Kingston winner Celtic Sky, Battier, Haggs Castle, Indian Card, Irish Colonial, No White Flags, Quantum Merit, Quiet Ruler, Reluctant Groom, Robbie's Rockin, Salute Him, Statement, Storm the Gate, Union One, and Whitmore's Conn.

Lord ofthe Thunder is likely to be entered in case the race comes off the grass.

Sackatoga Stable in winner's circle

While the focus is on its 3-year-old New York-bred gelding Funny Cide, Sackatoga Stable's maroon and silver colors were in the Belmont Park winner's circle Wednesday with another 3-year-old New York-bred, Wed in Dixie.

Wed in Dixie, a daughter of Dixie Brass, won a New York-bred entry-level allowance race by two lengths over a firm turf course. Wed in Dixie paid $24.80 to win. The price won't be so nice on Funny Cide in the June 7 Belmont Stakes.