04/11/2005 12:00AM

Absent Friend heads talented cast


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Pick a horse, any horse.

The field for the Grade 3, $100,000 Fifth Season Breeders' Cup at Oaklawn Park on Wednesday is so competitive, a case can be made for each of the eight entrants. Absent Friend should go off as a slight favorite in the 1 1/16-mile race, which is part of the track's Racing Festival of the South.

The festival is a program of nine stakes run over the final six days of the meet, which concludes Saturday with the $1 million Arkansas Derby.

, who earlier this meet won the Grade 3, $100,000 Essex Handicap for leading trainer Cole Norman, faces a host of capable challengers in the Fifth Season. Among them are Mauk Four, runner-up in the Essex; Pro Prado, who last year finished third in the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby; and Clays Awesome, who was a close fourth last out in the Grade 3 Razorback Breeders' Cup Handicap here.

Another rival of note is Free Thinking. He has developed rapidly over the course of the meet, winning 3 of his 4 starts. He will be making his stakes debut on Wednesday.

"He's figured out how to win," said Donnie Von Hemel, who trains Free Thinking.

won a two-other-than allowance in his Oaklawn debut on Feb. 4, setting the pace throughout. His next win came on March 9, when he closed from well back to win an optional claiming race. One start later, Free Thinking used stalking tactics in a neck win in an allowance that served as his springboard to the Fifth Season.

"In his races here, he's shown versatility," said Von Hemel. "I'd probably rather see him off the pace [Wednesday], but we'll see how the race sets up."

Free Thinking, a son of Unbridled and Danka, the dam of Grade 3 winner Bedanken, races for Pin Oak Stable.

Trainer Bob Holthus will send out Pro Prado and River Mountain Rd as separate betting interests in the Fifth Season.

"I think both horses will be very competitive," Holthus said.

comes into the Fifth Season sharp, having finished second by a neck to Free Thinking at a mile in his last start, on March 25. Jockey John McKee, who last weekend won the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap with Grand Reward and the $100,000 Bayakoa with Two Trail Sioux, has the mount on Pro Prado for Mrs. James Winn.

River Mountain Rd was an allowance winner earlier this meet for Harry Rosenblum, and in his last start he broke from a wide post and finished fifth in the Razorback.

"He was about five wide all the way," said Holthus. "This time, he drew down on the inside."

River Mountain Rd will break from post 2 under Tim Doocy.

Jamie Theriot has the mount on Absent Friend, a half-brother to Grade 1 winner Dreams Gallore, who races for H and H Ranch. The field for the Fifth Season is completed by Separato and Missme.