01/03/2008 1:00AM

3-year-olds begin quest in Hutcheson

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Grand Minstrel, winner of the Capote Stakes, opens his season in the Hutcheson.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - About the only thing certain other than death and taxes in recent years is that trainer Todd Pletcher would win the $150,000 Hutcheson Stakes. Pletcher has won the last five renewals of the Grade 2 Hutcheson, but that streak will come to an end Saturday because the reigning Eclipse Award trainer doesn't have an entrant in the seven-furlong dash.

Still, the Hutcheson has come up a very strong and contentious race. Ten 3-year-olds were entered, but two of them - Tiz It and Coal Play - were also entered to run Friday. The Hutcheson is the first race in the Gulfstream Park stakes series for 3-year-olds, which includes the $1 million Florida Derby on March 29.

Settling on a favorite in the Hutcheson - let alone actually picking the winner - is a real challenge. Halo Najib, Grand Minstrel, and Big Truck may attract the bulk of the public's support, although the lineup is loaded with talent and also includes Cool Coal Man, Silver Edition, Calder invaders Golden Spikes and Smooth Air, and Notgivinmyloveaway.

Halo Najib finished second behind the highly regarded Court Vision going a mile in the Grade 3 Iroquois at Churchill Downs last fall following an impressive debut win. A son of Halo's Image, Halo Najib found himself involved in a speed duel before fading to finish fifth to close out his 2-year-old campaign in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill.

Trainer Dale Romans said Halo Najib was too aggressive in the Kentucky Jockey Club, and he is expecting a big effort Saturday.

"He's trained well since coming down here, and I think this is a good spot to start out the year," Romans said.

Grand Minstrel closed out his juvenile season with an easy five-length victory over Aqueduct's inner track in the Capote Stakes. The son of Grand Slam is one of several speed horses in the field and stretches out to seven furlongs for the first time Saturday.

Big Truck turns back to a sprint after finishing fourth following an extremely eventful trip going 1 1/8 miles in the Grade 2 Remsen. A New York-bred, Big Truck won a pair of statebred races to open his career, including the seven-furlong Bertram Bongard. As a result of that victory, he carries high weight of 118 pounds, two more than the rest of the field.

"The Remsen is a throw-out, he was in trouble all the way," said trainer Barclay Tagg who prepped another New York-bred, Funny Cide, in Florida en route to winning the 2003 Kentucky Derby.

South Florida regulars figure to provide plenty of support for the Calder-based pair of Golden Spikes and Smooth Air.

Golden Spikes overcame a rough trip to win his debut last July before disappointing as the 4-5 favorite when returning from a minor illness four months later. Golden Spikes ended his brief but promising 2-year-old campaign with an extremely impressive 3 1/4-length allowance victory under Eddie Castro while equipped with blinkers for the first time on Dec. 13.

"Blinkers made a big difference," trainer Marty Wolfson said. "He was very green when we brought him back from the layoff, but the equipment change has gotten him more focused. Seven furlongs should be perfect for him, the further the better really, and while he's not a real speed horse, he took Eddie into that last race a lot sooner than we expected."

Smooth Air has improved with every start and enters the race as the only member of the field with multiple Beyer Speed Figures in the 90s. A homebred son of Smooth Jazz trained by Calder regular Bennie Stutts Jr., Smooth Air posted both those marks going seven furlongs - a second-place finish in the Jack Price Juvenile and a 4 3/4-length entry-level allowance win in his 2007 finale.

Cool Coal Man joined Halo Najib in the early pace battle in the Kentucky Jockey Club and likewise tired from the effort. In his previous start, Cool Coal Man withstood early pressure before edging away to a 2 1/4-length allowance win going 1 1/16 miles at Churchill Downs.