08/25/2004 11:00PM

Zito's third horse the key to pick four


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The cover story for the Aug 9-15 edition of DRF Simulcast Weekly is Jim Quinn's "Crushing the Pick Four," and that's only fitting because Saratoga's all-stakes pick four with a $1 million guaranteed pool is anchored by the Travers, and playing the gimmick will be on everybody's list of things to do.

Quinn's strategy of selecting a key horse in each leg and linking it with the contenders in the three other legs has worked for me on a number of happy occasions. Let's focus on the final leg, which will become the most important one if you are prescient enough to get by the Victory Ride, the Fourstardave, and the King's Bishop.

A successful pick four play involves many decisions, and perhaps my biggest one on Saturday will be to eliminate from consideration the morning-line favorite for the Travers.

Purge is listed at 2-1, and to my way of thinking he is extremely vulnerable on two handicapping fronts. First and foremost, and again here a nod to Quinn, it should be pointed out that Purge's Dosage index is 4.14.

That's a number that hasn't been bandied about much in the days leading up to the Travers, but it may indeed turn out to be a prime number. The Dosage debate seems to surface only for the Kentucky Derby, but whether you are a believer or a skeptic in terms of Dosage as a Derby handicapping factor, Quinn has pointed out repeatedly that horses with a dosage above 4.00 struggle to win 5 percent of their starts in Grade 1 races at 10 furlongs and up.

That is a powerful statistic, and it applies to Purge, who looked like a world-beater winning the Peter Pan and the Jim Dandy at nine furlongs, but came totally unglued in the Belmont Stakes.

Secondly, Purge likes his races well spaced. His breakthrough Peter Pan came with six weeks' rest, and he had been off for nine weeks prior to the Jim Dandy. Coming off a mere 20-day break, and stretching out to a distance where he has low-percentage chances, I will let him beat me.

My key horse will be Sir Shackleton, the one among Nick Zito's trio whom nobody is talking about, but who has as much talent, and quite possibly more, than plodding stablemate The Cliff's Edge and Birdstone, who for all intents and purposes has been on summer holiday since wearing down Smarty Jones in the Belmont 12 weeks ago.

Sir Shackleton's distant sixth-place finish in the Preakness looks better when you consider that, (a), it was his fifth lifetime start and first going two turns, and, (b), he was beaten only a bit more than three lengths for second.

Freshened after that, he returned to chase Medallist's otherworldly fractions in the 1 1/16-mile Dwyer, and again his effort was deceptively good. He was the primary chaser down the backstretch, was surrounded from both flanks midway on the turn, passed by wide-rallying The Cliff's Edge nearing midstretch, and then held his ground against The Cliff's Edge to the wire, earning a new top Beyer in the process.

Sir Shackleton's second start around two turns was the West Virginia Derby, where the footnote for his victory reads ". . . sat patiently . . . full of run in the closing stages."

Sir Shackleton has the look of a horse going the right way in leaps and bounds recently, and he may get a perfect setup in the Travers if, as expected, Lion Heart comes under strong pressure from Purge through the middle fractions.

I expect Lion Heart to turn back Purge and enter the stretch with the lead, but I would trust him more if My Snookie's Boy, the horse he beat narrowly in the Long Branch and the Haskell, had not required five starts to win in the maiden claiming ranks, finally doing so for a $45,000 tag.

The way I see it, Lion Heart enters the stretch with the lead and Sir Shackleton picks up the chase, getting the jump on his two late-rallying stablemates, and either he runs down Lion Heart or he doesn't.

Either way, it's one of those two. And if my pick four tickets have already blown, they have this bet called the exacta.